Monthly Archives: June 2013

Forced urbanization in China moves from practice to policy

by Rhodri C. Williams

No half-measures to be taken in China’s peaceful rise, it seems. An astonishing New York Times piece recently reviewed the implications of a policy still not finally approved in Beijing but apparently in full swing in the provinces – according to which (wait for it) 250 million people will be forcibly urbanized over the next 12-15 years. That is more than the population of Indonesia, the fourth largest country in the world. If the policy succeeds, the world’s most populous country will have gone from being 80% rural in the early 1980s to 70% urban two generations later.

The scope of the project is almost unfathomable (enjoy the NYT video, in which nighttime images of scores of the world’s biggest cities are overflown before a 250 million headcount is racked up). As is the potential for rights violations, accretion of social ills and mayhem that could result. One observer is quoted as stating that this is program is neither less ambitious nor less risky than the disastrous Great Leap Forward in the 1960s. So why bother?

Continue reading


If it’s broke, destroy it? The partition debate arrives in Syria

by Rhodri C. Williams

Almost inevitably in appalling situations like the conflict in Syria, there comes a moment when inhibitions seem to drop among certain sectors of the commentariat and a note of petulant, provocative resignation enters the debate. They can’t live together, goes the standard line, and they have well and truly proved it now. Why should liberals in the West be indulged in their Benetton fantasies? Why spend blood and treasure to preside over the shotgun remarriage of nations so fundamentally unable to tolerate each other’s presence that they engage in fratricide?

The infuriating thing about such ‘partitionist’ arguments is not (only) the curiously visceral satisfaction some commentators seem to take in espousing a vision of humanity unable to accommodate difference by any other means than forced assimilation or strict separation. Nor is it the fact that such arguments tend to rely on speculation about what ordinary people actually want, often in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary. Nor the way that they play into the hands of unprincipled and frequently undemocratic elites and conflict entrepreneurs. It is the fact that they may in some cases be right but for all the wrong reasons.

My first brush with ‘partitionist’ lines of argument came in Bosnia where my initial receptivity to them was challenged not only intuitively (by my unreconstructed persistence in the belief that people can find ways to rub along together) but also structurally (by my job specifically seeking ways to support Bosnians in doing so). However, my best efforts notwithstanding, the partition bandwagon rolled along, perhaps in most raucous form when splitting Bosnia looked like a real option, yet gaily undeterred long after it was clear that partition was neither particularly feasible nor especially desirable.

Perhaps as a result, there was a certain satisfaction in having worked on something as seemingly pollyanna-ish as property restitution in post-conflict Bosnia and seen it succeed. Granted, not everyone returned, but the result was segregation based largely on individual and household choices, rather than partition based on a political sew-up. And, safe in an unprovable negative, I will propose that the brute fact of restitution – the resolution of 200,000 claims that intimately affected many of the families most victimized by the conflict – cannot but have had a calming influence that has helped keep Bosnia’s notorious post-war ethnic politicking from spilling over into new bloodshed.

One can even argue that the pollyannas have been vindicated once again by the recent post-nationalist demonstrations in Bosnia. Perhaps the new generation we have all been going on about so long has now come of age. If this is the case, a new politics could result. Certainly not a politics that transcends nationalism (not even Sweden can manage that), but one that could at least reveal the hollowness at the core of the ‘inevitability’ discourses surrounding partition proposals in places like Bosnia.

Nevertheless, in 2004, the very year that I left Bosnia convinced that partitionism was en route to the dustbin of history, ethnic riots in Kosovo sent carefully orchestrated plans for national reconciliation there into a tailspin. A familiar call and response ensued, with aggrieved international observers eager to wash their hands of the mess and earnest liberal interventionists arguing that the preservation of a multiethnic society was not only possible but necessary.

At that point, my former Bosnia colleagues Marcus Cox and Gerald Knaus of the European Stability Initiative (ESI) were prompted to mount one of the most spirited defenses of ‘post-partitionism’ to date, contrasting the integrity of international efforts to hold places like Bosnia together with the cynicism of an earlier generation of peace agreements in which population transfers were as routine as border demarcations. But in 2004, one year into the US invasion of Iraq, the partition debate had barely begun. Two years later, the festering dispute between Arabs and Kurds over the region surrounding Kirkuk and the spiraling sectarian violence in Baghdad placed partition squarely on the international agenda.

Continue reading

Global conflict-induced displacement at highest level since 1994

by Rhodri C. Williams

During any given spring in the past, the release of the global internal displacement figures by the IDMC followed by the overall displacement numbers from UNHCR came as a malign one-two punch. Even in the salad days of the mid-2000s, the ostensibly ‘stabilized’ figures of around 25 million conflict-induced internally displaced persons (IDPs) and around 12 million refugees involved huge numbers by any count, staggering in their relentless accretion of human misery and broken lives. And all the more so as consciousness dawned of the rising tide of disaster displacement (and a studious silence about the additional millions uprooted by development projects persisted).

But with all that in our luggage, this year has been particularly bad. First came IDMC in April with the unwelcome news that conflict-related internal displacement (and by implication, the re-emergence of regional and internal armed conflicts) had been written off far too early. And now comes UNHCR pointing to 45.2 million deracinated lives at the end of 2012. Before you even count a further six months of rampant displacement in Syria, in other words, we see the worst overall conflict displacement numbers since 1994, the year the Rwanda genocide began and it seemed the Bosnia war would never end (and no one even had the energy to ask what was happening in the north and south Caucasus anymore).

Gird your loins humanitarians, it looks like we called it too early.

Bosnia helps itself to a slice of Spring

by Rhodri C. Williams

943462_118337518375548_378523283_aThere has been a lot written about the current ‘Baby-Lution’ in Bosnia by people with  far more current insight than me about what it is all about. For some good examples, see Igor Štiks in Open Democracy here, Florian Bieber here, or Eric Gordy here. And of course, if you want to take a bath in it, there is always the #JMBG hashtag in Twitter.

So at the risk of simply repeating what many others have stated earlier and more eloquently, what a breath of fresh air. What a relief to see before me a line that the old dinosaurs and their inat-politics could no longer cross without provoking an elemental thirst for ordinary politics and ordinary life. Real systemic change may still be a long way off, but a lot of Bosnians have now made a move from thought to action and that is both significant and irrevocable.

For me personally, the current images coming out of Sarajevo and Banja Luka represent a long overdue alignment between the Bosnia I know and the image it projects in the international media. And I find it deeply moving. So let me end by challenging anybody who ever worked and lived in Bosnia not to get a little misty-eyed watching this wonderful clip.

A problem from hell for the 2010s

by Rhodri C. Williams

In listening to the Obama administration’s latest contortions on the ever-shifting red-line in the face of ever-clearer evidence of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, it is hard not to be transported back in time to another Democratic administration facing another problem from hell twenty years ago.

In 1994, it was President Clinton facing a similarly impossible red line in Rwanda, unable to publicly recognize the brute reality of what was happening on the ground because of the legal responsibility it would entail to intervene. As described here by the Guardian in 2004, it would take a decade for the obvious to become a matter of public record:

President Bill Clinton’s administration knew Rwanda was being engulfed by genocide in April 1994 but buried the information to justify its inaction, according to classified documents made available for the first time. Senior officials privately used the word genocide within 16 days of the start of the killings, but chose not to do so publicly because the president had already decided not to intervene.

Meanwhile, as the assault on moderate Hutus and any Tutsis continued, officials in Washington, D.C. were reduced to the demeaning sophistry of discussing formulations rather than condemning mass-murder. For a sobering  reminder, witness the agonies of State Department spokesperson Christine Shelly in April 1994:

In Rwanda, as in Syria, there were tremendous risks associated with intervention and little domestic political support for becoming bogged down in another sticky regional conflict. Indeed, in Syria, commentators are only beginning to awaken to the historical complexities that have shaped the region, providing a more accurate accounting of the difficulties that would face any intervention while at the same time feeding the risk of dismissive ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ narratives of the type that arguably delayed a meaningful international response to the crises in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Continue reading

What can indigenous peoples learn from the Åland Islands land acquisition regime?

by Rhodri C. Williams

This comment is cross-posted from the Åland Islands Peace Institute’s blog with the generous permission of my colleagues there. The Peace Institute is an independent foundation that examines peace and conflict issues from the perspective of the Åland Islands’ special legal status, as recently described in an edited volume on the utility of “the Åland example” in contemporary peace negotiations and peace-building. My below comment gives an overview of the issues I am currently researching with funding from the Åland Islands Cultural Foundation. For an earlier take on these issues, see a chapter I wrote for a 2009 study on “the foundations of the Åland autonomy” while still a guest researcher at the Peace Institute.

The autonomy regime enjoyed by the Åland Islands within Finland is an extraordinary political experiment that has withstood the test of time better than most of its kind. It has the authority of age, dating back to agreements brokered by the League of Nations during the interwar period. At the same time, the autonomy has not merely survived but thrived, having been progressively expanded in scope both during and after the Cold War. Perhaps most tellingly, Åland negotiated a path into the EU alongside Finland in 1994 that not only allowed it to retain the key features of its regime, but also endowed it with the confidence to negotiate hard for further arrangements seen as necessary to prevent its sub-national powers from being rolled over by the supra-national juggernaut in Brussels.

Having lived on Åland full time from 2004 to 2010 and made regular summer pilgrimages from Stockholm ever since, the place has made a deep impression on me and shaped my thinking about the rights and wrongs of minority protection. This is saying something as well, given that I was a skeptic on arrival. As an American raised on melting pot mythology and Brown vs. Board, my instinct was to believe that separate could neither be equal nor desirable. Moreover, having spent the previous five years as part of the international effort to stitch post-war Bosnia back together, I was painfully aware of the extent to which strategies based on entrenching group difference could feed conflict as easily as they could resolve it. But I was impressed from the start by two things about Åland.

First, Åland really did do a good job governing itself. Sure, there were things to complain about, but people got on with it and government delivered. Given that Åland was both tiny compared with other administrative units in the Nordic countries and relatively rich, the archipelago seemed like a textbook case for the subsidiarity-based efficiency arguments for decentralizing power. Second, Ålanders were incredibly interested in their own autonomy. Most outsiders I talk to have a hard time believing 27,000 people manage to support two daily newspapers that between them hardly have time for stories from beyond Kobba Klintar. The identity-based arguments for autonomy clearly applied as well – in other words, Åland has autonomy because Ålanders wouldn’t settle for less.

For reasons not entirely clear to myself, I have long been drawn to questions about land and property. I wrote a masters thesis in Geography long ago on the effect of East German housing policies after unification, and went on to work in Bosnia on the restitution of homes for families that had been forced to flee during the war. As a consultant, I also focused on property issues in post-conflict countries such as Cambodia, Colombia, Cyprus, Liberia and Turkey. Some of my most recent work included an analysis of property conflicts in contemporary Libya. However, even if my early consultancy career was focused on post-conflict countries, my life was being lived in one of Europe’s flagship autonomies. When I had the good fortune to be offered a guest-researcher position at the Åland Islands Peace Institute, I quickly began to realize how important land and property issues could also be in terms of protection and conflict prevention for minorities and indigenous peoples.

Continue reading