Monday, September 2, 2013

International Crisis Group on the Syria Crisis

The International Crisis Group (ICG) recently posted a statement regarding potential intervention in the Syrian conflict. ICG outlines potential scenarios if the US were to engage in military action against Syria, none which are positive, and poses suggestions for alternatives that do not include military intervention. The statement can be found on the ICG website, and I have included the full statement here:

Assuming the U.S. Congress authorises them, Washington (together with some allies) soon will launch military strikes against Syrian regime targets. If so, it will have taken such action for reasons largely divorced from the interests of the Syrian people. The administration has cited the need to punish, deter and prevent use of chemical weapons - a defensible goal, though Syrians have suffered from far deadlier mass atrocities during the course of the conflict without this prompting much collective action in their defence. The administration also refers to the need, given President Obama's asserted "redline" against use of chemical weapons, to protect Washington's credibility - again an understandable objective though unlikely to reso nate much with Syrians. Quite apart from talk of outrage, deterrence and restoring U.S. credibility, the priority must be the welfare of the Syrian people. Whether or not military strikes are ordered, this only can be achieved through imposition of a sustained ceasefire and widely accepted political transition.
To precisely gauge in advance the impact of a U.S. military attack, regardless of its scope and of efforts to carefully calibrate it, by definition is a fool's errand. In a conflict that has settled into a deadly if familiar pattern - and in a region close to boiling point - it inevitably will introduce a powerful element of uncertainty. Consequences almost certainly will be unpredictable. Still, several observations can be made about what it might and might not do:
  • A military attack will not, nor can it, be met with even minimal international consensus; in this sense, the attempt to come up with solid evidence of regime use of chemical weapons, however necessary, also is futile. Given the false pretenses that informed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and, since then, regional and international polarisation coupled with the dynamics of the Syrian conflict itself, proof put forward by the U.S. will be insufficient to sway disbelievers and skepticism will be widespread.
  • It might discourage future use of chemical weapons by signaling even harsher punishment in the event of recidivism - an important achievement in and of itself. Should the regime find itself fighting for its survival, however, that consideration might not weigh heavily. Elements within the opposition also might be tempted to use such weapons and then blame the regime, precisely in order to provoke further U.S. intervention.
  • It could trigger violent escalation within Syria as the regime might exact revenge on rebels and rebel-held areas, while the opposition seeks to seize the opportunity to make its own gains.
  • Major regional or international escalation (such as retaliatory actions by the regime, Iran or Hizbollah, notably against Israel) is possible but probably not likely given the risks involved, though this could depend on the scope of the strikes.
  • Military action, which the U.S. has stated will not aim at provoking the regime's collapse, might not even have an enduring effect on the balance of power on the ground. Indeed, the regime could register a propaganda victory, claiming it had stood fast against the U.S. and rallying domestic and regional opinion around an anti-Western, anti-imperialist mantra.
Ultimately, the principal question regarding a possible military strike is whether diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict can be reenergized in its aftermath. Smart money says they will not: in the wake of an attack they condemn as illegal and illegitimate, the regime and its allies arguably will not be in a mood to negotiate with the U.S. Carefully calibrating the strike to hurt enough to change their calculations but not enough to prompt retaliation or impede diplomacy is appealing in theory. In practice, it almost certainly is not feasible.
Whether or not the U.S. chooses to launch a military offensive, its responsibility should be to try to optimize chances of a diplomatic breakthrough. This requires a two-fold effort lacking to date: developing a realistic compromise political offer as well as genuinely reaching out to both Russia and Iran in a manner capable of eliciting their interest - rather than investing in a prolonged conflict that has a seemingly bottomless capacity to escalate.
In this spirit, the U.S. should present - and Syria's allies should seriously and constructively consider - a proposal based on the following elements:
  1. It is imperative to end this war. The escalation, regional instability and international entanglement its persistence unavoidably stimulates serve nobody's interest.
  2. The only exit is political. That requires far-reaching concessions and a lowering of demands from all parties. The sole viable outcome is a compromise that protects the interests of all Syrian constituencies and reflects rather than alters the regional strategic balance;
  3. The Syrian crisis presents an important opportunity to test whether the U.S. and the Islamic Republic of Iran can work together on regional issues to restore stability;
  4. A viable political outcome in Syria cannot be one in which the current leadership remains indefinitely in power but, beyond that, the U.S. can be flexible with regards to timing and specific modalities;
  5. The U.S. is keen to avoid collapse of the Syrian state and the resulting political vacuum. The goal should thus be a transition that builds on existing institutions rather than replaces them. This is true notably with respect to the army;
  6. Priority must be given to ensuring that no component of Syrian society is targeted for retaliation, discrimination or marginalisation in the context of a negotiated settlement.
Such a proposal should then form the basis for renewed efforts by Lakhdar Brahimi, the joint United Nations/Arab League envoy, and lead to rapid convening of a Geneva II conference.
Debate over a possible strike - its wisdom, preferred scope and legitimacy in the absence of UN Security Council approval - has obscured and distracted from what ought to be the overriding international preoccupation: how to revitalise the search for a political settlement. Discussions about its legality aside, any contemplated military action should be judged based on whether it advances that goal or further postpones it.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

One Million Syrian Children Refugees

UNHCR has just reported that one million Syrian children have crossed the Syrian border to seek safety from the uprising against President Assad, which began in March 2011. Three-quarters of those children are under the age of 11. An additional two million children are currently displaced within Syria. And more than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
[Photo: UNHCR]
International news outlets were airing footage of an alleged chemical attack against Syrian civilians, which was recently confirmed by the US White House as being credible. One heartbreaking video I watched last night from Al-Jazeera showed a young father crying while cradling his two dead children, both of who looked no older than eight.

It is shameful that the world is standing by and letting Syrian civilians be slaughtered. I am certainly not one to rush towards military intervention, but there must be something that can be done to curb the human rights abuses. I look forward to hearing the US and other countries' plans for intervention; considering how many children are being affected in this conflict, a plan may be too little, too late.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Abuse and Recruitment of Children in Central African Republic

This week, the BBC reported that over 100,000 children in the Central African Republic (CAR) are being sexually and physically abused, recruited for armed groups, and suffering from malnutition and malaria. This is the result of what UN chief Ban Ki-Moon has called "a total breakdown of law and order" after Michel Djotodia overthrew President Francois Bozize in March of this year. Djotodia has "promised" to step down after elections scheduled for 2016, but a lot more damage can come to children and their families in three years of instability and violence. The article continues to describe the complete collapse of the health care system and destruction of whole villages. Children are obviously a major population that will be negatively affected by the political chaos in CAR.

[Photo: AP]

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Increasingly Strong Connection Between Climate Change and Conflict

Tim McDonnell of Mother Jones magazine recently wrote an excellent piece connecting global warming and violent conflict. McDonnell cites a survey published in Science, which:
"...takes a first-ever 30,000-foot view of this research, looking for trends that tie these examples together through fresh analysis of raw data from 60 quantitative studies. It offers evidence that unusually high temperatures could lead to tens of thousands more cases of "interpersonal" violence—murder, rape, assault, etc.—and more than a 50 percent increase in "intergroup" violence, i.e. war, in some places."
There are many potential reasons for this connection between climate change and violence. There are obvious connections between climate change and natural disaster, which oftentimes goes hand-in-hand with violence. Some researchers claim that warm weather contributes to increased inner-city violence (cue: Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing), such as the recent increase in murders in Chicago. Another reason is exceptionally high and low rainfall impacting agricultural production, which in turn can lead to interpersonal and intergroup violence.

The factors contributing to this connection is piquing the interest of researchers. Hopefully, new studies will draw stronger connections to causality, and perhaps suggest how violence can be lessened and even prevented.

[Photo: Medyan Dairieh/ZUMA Press]

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Syrian Refugees in Jordan

A few days ago, I received the following email from my friend Yuhki Ohnogi, who I met when working in Nablus. I thought that it would be important to share:
I'm right now in Irbid, north of Jordan. Since May, I've been taking an Arabic course here. Irbid is located very close to the border with Syria and 2km away from Irbid is the second largest refugee camp in the world- Zaatari refugee camp. The camp is accommodating 150,000 refugees from Syria. Although they are free from all miserable fighting, their life is far from comfortable. Because of lack of support from international communities, every day they wake up to ask themselves as to how to survive for a day. Even though they are provided with basic living items, they have to sell them to make some money to buy food. Technically, they can not work in Jordan without going through an official work permit process, which is now impossible. Recently, I came across this organisation called "Voice". They work with the Syrian youth who are living in Zaatari refugee camp. They interview the people in the camp and collect their stories.
Yukhi also included this link to the organization's website.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

My Neighborhood

My Neighborhood is a documentary about settler expansion in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. The film is narrated by seventh-grader, Mohammed, who sagely and poetically describes the violent changes to his home and his neighborhood as a result of settler expansion. The film explores Mohammed's feelings towards the settlers and his evolving opinions about the Israeli people. It's short (about 25 minutes), yet extremely powerful.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Palestinian Child Labor in Israeli Settlements

Al-Jazeera published an article today about Palestinian children working in Israeli settlements. Israeli settlements have been deemed illegal according to international law. In the Jordan Valley, there are approximately 60,000 Palestinians and 9,500 Israelis living in 37 settlements.

Between 10000 to 20,000 Palestinians work inside Jordan Valley settlements, which varies according to the season. Five to ten percent of these numbers are child workers. These children often forgo school in order to make money for their families, who are often in or on the brink of poverty. There is a high drop out rate in the Jordan Valley because of the weak educational system, lack of adequate infrastructure, and Israeli restrictions on building new schools for Palestinians. According to a 2012 report from the Ma'an Development Centre, during the 2011/2012 school year, there were 10,000 children living in this area who started the school year in tents, caravans, or tin shacks. The report also notes that nearly one-third of schools here lack adequate water and sanitation facilities.

Children have been employed by settlers to clean, lift boxes, pick and package vegetables and fruit, working in extreme heat (up to 50-degrees Celcius) for eight to nine hour shifts. They earn approximately 50-90NIS ($14-$25) per shift, which is about 25-50 percent what they are entitled to under Israeli labor laws.

The short article is worth reading, as it touches upon the tough decisions children make in deciding to work in this context, including the push and pull factors hat influence their decisions.

[Photo: Ma'an Development Centre / Al Jazeera]

Friday, June 28, 2013

State of the World's Children 2013: A Focus on Children with Disabilities

UNICEF's annual report, State of the World's Children 2013, highlights the issues, needs and circumstances of children with disabilities. The report describes the current responses to children with disabilities are largely focused on institutionalization, abandonment, and neglect. In fact, institutionalization of children with disabilities often extends into adulthood: 
"Millions of children with disabilities are separated from their families and placed in orphanages, boarding schools, psychiatric facilities and social care homes. Children who survive institutions face the prospect of lifetime segregation from society in facilities for adults."
Children with disabilities face discrimination, exclusion from education, health and other public services, and unequal access to resources. The report features powerful personal testimonials and recommendations from children, parents, and advocates. As a response, UNICEF calls on governments, organizations, and individuals to fully include these children into all realms of life. The report's "Agenda for Action" suggests fighting discrimination, dismantling barriers to inclusion, ending institutionalization, supporting families, moving beyond minimum standards, coordinating services to support children, and involving children in decision-making.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Syrian Refugess in Jordan: Longing for Home

About 12,000 Syrians are calling the tents and trailers of the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan home, at least for the foreseeable future. Today, the New York Times features an interactive website exploring the Syrian refugee experience. The web feature explores the physical environment that the Syrian refugees are living in, as well as a deep longing to return home.

[Photo: Lynsey Addario, The New York Times]

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The World's Displaced Population Reaches Record Levels

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), the wars in Syria and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have caused the number of displaced people to increase dramatically, with the current world total at 28 million.
Here is some more information from an article in The Guardian (Photo: Kate Holt/Oxfam):

More than 6.5 million people were newly displaced within their own countries in 2012, almost twice as many as the year before, IDMC said in its annual report. Since these people have not crossed borders, they are not refugees and do not benefit from international protection.
The situation in Syria is particularly critical, as it is the world's largest and fastest evolving crisis in terms of new displacements. The number of Syrian internally displaced persons (IDPs) is now more than 3 million, of which 2.4 million were displaced last year.
"The crisis is in its third year and the escalation has gone beyond a tipping point," said Clare Spurrell, an IDMC spokeswoman. "Humanitarians can't save Syria, it has to be the politicians … what you are seeing are people who are utterly exhausted. The internally displaced are completely reliant on others, but host communities are themselves suffering from a lack of food, and diseases are breaking out."
The UN high commissioner for refugees, António Guterres, has described the Syrian civil war as the worst humanitarian disaster since the end of the cold war, and more brutal and destructive than the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Until the conflict in Syria is resolved, internal displacement will continue to accelerate, said the IDMC, pointing out that this phenomenon has been seen in other countries with drawn-out conflicts.
Colombia has the largest number of IDPs in the world, followed by Syria and the DRC, which has the third largest IDP population. The region with the largest number of IDPs last year was sub-Saharan Africa, where there were 10.4 million IDPs by the end of 2012, almost a third of the world's internally displaced population.
About a million people fled their homes in DRC as a result of attacks from the rebel group M23. In November, 140,000 people fled the North Kivu capital of Goma in a single week as M23 forces entered the city. Conflict in Mali and increased violence in Nigeria from the radical Islamist group Boko Haram also caused large new displacements.
The report suggests that while a resolution to the conflict, particularly in Syria, is critical to dealing with an internal displacement crisis, so too is bridging the gap between emergency response and development.
"Ninety percent of the countries monitored by IDMC have IDPs living in protracted displacement, often for decades, while second and third generations are born into displacement,'' said Kate Halff, director of IDMC. She added: ''Governments are responsible for finding long-term solutions for their displaced citizens. However, they can only be realised when the governments and the international community recognise that people forced from their homes require not only a humanitarian response at the height of a crisis, but sustained engagement until a lasting solution is achieved."
African countries have emerged as pioneers in addressing the problem of IDPs. In December, the Kampala convention, the world's first legally binding instrument to outline the obligations of governments to protect and assist IDPs, came into force.
So far, the convention has been signed, although not necessarily ratified, by 37 of the 53 members of the African Union. It binds governments to provide legal protection for the rights and wellbeing of those forced to flee inside their own countries due to conflict, violence, natural disasters, or development projects. Under the convention, governments must gather data and identify IDPs to understand where they are and what they need, provide personal ID documents, trace families and help to reunite them, and consult IDPs in decisions on their needs.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Talking Palestine with Rana al-Rabi and Julie Norman

Yesterday, I sat down with Rana al-Rabi, host of CKUT's caravan radio show, and Julie Norman, professor of political science at McGill to talk about Obama's recent visit to Israel and Palestine, doing research with Palestinian families and children. You can access the archive of the program here (we start the conversation about halfway through the show).

Friday, March 8, 2013

Current State of Refugees

This weekend, I am attending the 6th Annual Conference of the Canadian Association for Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at St. Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. This morning, Furio de Angeles, UNHCR Canada Representative, provided some updated and current statistics on the status of refugees:
  • 15.5 million refugees in the world
  • 26.5 million displaced populations (under the traditional definition of displaced because of conflict in their home country
  • 3.5 million registered stateless people in the world; however, the complete number of stateless people is closer to 12 million
There are two categories of people not included in UNHCR's traditional definition of a "person-of-concern":
  • persons displaced by natural disaster are currently not considered refugees or "traditionally displaced
  • non-permanent residents (temporary foreign workers) displaced by political violence in places such as Libya and Syria
Mr. de Angeles commented upon four current contexts - Syria, Mali, DRC, South Sudan - that are drawing upon most of UNHCR's resources now. Yes, conflict in Somalia and Afghanistan are also important and ongoing, but the above conflicts are emerging and pressing now.

Regarding Syria, the crisis is producing a shocking 7000 refugees each day. Just to put this in perspective, in 2011, there were 2000 new refugees each day worldwide. Syria is a unique context, because 70% of refugees have been displaced from urban settings. Another important aspect is that children are becoming defining victims of this conflict. Unfortunately, Mr. de Angeles reported that there is currently a 70% funding gap in terms of what UNHCR needs to address the needs of people of concern as a result of the Syrian conflict.

Mali, DRC, and South Sudan represent more typical refugee contexts. South Sudan is facing a health crisis among it's refugee population. There is currently a Hepatitis B outbreak in the region, affecting thousands of refugees.

Monday, March 4, 2013

57th Commission on the Status of Women

Worldwide, it is estimated that one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex or abused in some other way. Women and girls who have been displaced by conflict are at particular risk of gender-based violence (GBV). From the Democratic Republic of Congo to Syria, forms of GBV such as rape, sexual exploitation and forced prostitution turn women’s lives upside down, leaving lasting physical and emotional scars. GBV doesn't just affect women, but it has deep and lasting effects on families, communities, and societies.

Violence against women can and should be prevented. Also, survivors of GBV must be able to access the care and services that they need, including medical and mental health services.

Today, non-governmental organizations and activists are gathering at the United Nations for the first day of the 57th Commission on the Status of Women. As one of the participants in the Commission, the Women's Refugee Commission is also starting a social media initiative called "Power of Prevention: Ending Violence Against Women and Girls in Crises", which aims to raise awareness about the prevention of GBV in crisis settings and highlight tools and resources to help make displaced women and girls safer.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

International Humanitarian Opportunities

Students often ask me how they can volunteer and/or work abroad. This space will be regularly updated with resources for students who are interested in gaining international experience.

One of the best way to get experience overseas is to attend talks and lectures on international topics, and make connections with people who are working abroad. You are more likely to get a job or internship if you know someone at the organization and have made a personal connection.


One of the easiest ways to work abroad is to volunteer, especially if you have not yet earned an advanced degree. As an American, I joined the United States Peace Corps, which was an experience that greatly influenced my desire to live and work abroad. If you are Canadian, and equivalent organization is Volunteer Services Overseas. There are other volunteer organizations, but unfortunately, most of them demand a fee for airfare, housing, etc. However, this is a great way to get your foot in the door. Here are some volunteer organizations that offer a diverse range of service projects throughout the world for a fee:
The International Volunteer Programs Association is an association of non-governmental organizations involved in international volunteer work and internship exchanges. IVPA is an association of volunteer sending organizations but does not organize or run its own volunteer programs.

If you have a specialized health-related degree (e.g., medical, nursing, social work), then you might want to check out Médecins sans frontières (Doctors without Borders), which posts volunteer positions.


The following websites are great places to look for international humanitarian internships and jobs:
The United Nations is its own enormous ecosystem of intergovernmental agencies that are charged by UN member states with carrying out some function of international policy or implementing some treaty or other. They are diverse in their form and function, but all carry a mandate from the UN to act on behalf of member nations. You will come across organizations like the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) who are charged with special responsibility for certain groups or issues (in these cases refugees, children and hunger). UNOCHA (the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) is perhaps worth a special look because of its non-operational role in coordinating UN agencies and NGOs in the humanitarian domain.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (the ICRC) that is mandated by the Geneva Conventions protects victims of international and armed conflict is one part the second is the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (the IFRC). It is a federation of 180 or so national Red Cross or Red Crescent societies (one in each country, in the main). These national societies generally operate in their home country (running blood banks, responding to disasters etc) but some larger national Red Cross’s (notably the American Red Cross) sometimes operate under their own auspices outside of their home country.

Non-governmental organizations are private (in the sense of not representing a government) non-profit groups that act in the international arena. They typically claim to represent concerned citizenry, a religious group, or some other interest. They also often post internships and jobs on their websites:


For further reading, please check out the following books or articles:
  • Fiona Terry's book Condemned to Repeat? was one of the first books I read on the state of humanitarian aid, and it opened my eyes to the harm that aid can do in various contexts.
  • Larry Minear’s book The Humanitarian Enterprise is a good introduction to the landscape of the humanitarian system, and an analysis of some of the bigger issues it faces.
  • Peter Walker’s book Shaping the Humanitarian World is another great analytical look at the global institutions of humanitarian response.