Iraq: extremist groups threaten regional war, U.N. panel warns

IRAQ SECTARIANThe onslaught of Sunni extremist militants in Iraq will have violent repercussions in Syria and could bring wider war in the Middle East, a United Nations panel warned on Tuesday, The New York Times reports:

The conflict in Syria “has reached a tipping point threatening the entire region,” the four-member United Nations commission of inquiry on Syria told the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Attacks in northern Iraq by forces affiliated to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have brought “unimaginable suffering” to civilians and are likely to cause greater foreign involvement in the Syrian conflict, including an influx of more foreign fighters, the panel said.

“ISIS has shown itself willing to fan the flames of sectarianism both in Iraq and Syria,” the panel warned, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. “Any strengthening of their position gives rise to great concern.”

khalilzadThe chance to consolidate democracy and stability following the 2010 surge and successful election was squandered, according to Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the UN. 

“Iraq could have capitalized on that progress at the time and avoided this fate if it had implemented the roadmap that was prescribed in the constitution,” he writes for The National Interest:

Instead, a number of mistakes were made. Contrary to the constitution, the party that won the largest number of seats in the 2010 election—the secular and cross-sectarian Iraqiya led by Ayad Allawi—was not allowed to form the government. Instead, in a deal backed by the United States and Iran, Prime Minister Maliki remained the country’s prime minister. Instead of implementing a power-sharing agreement, which was the basis for Maliki remaining in office, he began to eliminate political rivals (especially among the Sunni Arabs), politicize the military and security services, and monopolize (rather than share) power. He also undermined the implementation of the federal system that was clearly stipulated in the country’s constitution.

The consequences were twofold, notes Khalilzad, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy:

First, large segments of the Sunni community lost trust in the government, and more dangerously, lost hope that they would be treated with dignity and fairness as partners in governing the country…..Second, relations between the central government and the Kurdistan region also deteriorated to the extent that Kurdish leaders became convinced that Iraq’s federal structure had failed because the Maliki government repeatedly ignored or violated the political compact enshrined in the constitution, which was the basis of Kurdish assent to remain in a new Iraqi federal state. 

“Despite the rapid success of the Sunni campaign, it is a kamikaze attack that will make the Shiite hold on the Iraqi state stronger, not weaker,” says Steven Simon, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, formerly the senior director for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Security Council from 2011 to 2012.

Iraq(2)The insurgents of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have made sweeping gains, but an assault on Baghdad, or its capture, can only end in defeat — and the strengthening of the insurgents’ sworn Shiite enemies in Baghdad and, especially, Tehran, he writes for The New York Times:

First, consider the brute demographic reality. Unlike in Syria, Sunnis are a relatively small part of the Iraqi population, about 25 percent — though they are a majority in some areas of the west and north. And in Baghdad their numbers are minuscule….If the insurgents of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, enter Baghdad’s residual Sunni neighborhoods, they will likely be welcomed, but they won’t have much to work with, nor will they have the strategic depth they will need in the street fighting that ensues.

Moreover, rather like what happened in Syria, the Sunni offensive is likely to spur a transformation of the Iraqi Army from the sorry mess it is now into a more resilient and operationally effective force.

In Syria, the army reeled in the face of the rebellion in 2011; desertions were rife and large sections of territory were lost to the insurgency. But as incompetent commanders were killed or relieved and a new leadership emerged, the army was able to bring its vastly greater firepower to bear on an increasingly fractionated adversary. Its combat capability was multiplied by the successful integration of civilian militias and the intelligence and tactical advice supplied by Iran. This trajectory is likely to be replicated in Iraq.

ISIS’ s self-interested pursuit of its absolutist ideals has made it countless enemies in Syria, and it will face huge challenges to avoid a similar fate in Iraq, according to Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, where his work focuses particularly on terrorism and insurgency in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon

“This latest offensive is arguably the most significant event in Sunni jihadism since 9/11,” he writes for CNN’s Global Public Square:

Having already challenged al Qaeda’s ideological legitimacy, ISIS has now underlined its perceived military superiority to a receptive younger and more fanatical generation of potential recruits around the world.

While al Qaeda and its affiliates are embracing a more patient locally focused strategy, ISIS manifests a determination for rapid, dramatic results. It’s certainly just shown these in Iraq. But whether this will prove a more effective long-term strategy remains to be seen.

“The U.S. invasion of Iraq destroyed the main Sunni bulwark against Iran, with two consequences,” says Olivier Roy, an expert on political Islam at the European University Institute in Italy: “the solidifying of a de facto independent Kurdistan, the secession of a large Sunni populated area in Northern Iraq that shifted from Baathism to Jihadism and straddles the border with Syria. Saudi Arabia, instead of allying itself with the mainstream Sunni organizations (like the Muslim Brothers), wants to crush them, while it supported for decades the very radicals that are now taking the lead in Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria. Thus Iran is the great beneficiary of the collapse of the dominant order built between 1918 and 1948, with a minimum engagement on the field,” he tells the New Republic.

Going forward, the situation is likely to follow one of two paths, says former envoy Khalilzad:

First, Iraq’s leaders could seek to restore stability through renewed power-sharing arrangements among the three large communities—Sunni, Shia and Kurd. Based on conversation with Iraq’s leaders, there is a consensus that Maliki must be replaced with a new prime minister to restore unity. This could unfold in two ways. Iraqis could establish a supreme national council consisting of the major leaders of the three communities, which could include Maliki, but which would have a new prime minister. Alternatively, the three communities could agree on a new Shiite leader to replace Maliki as Prime Minister…..

If a new power-sharing arrangement is reached in Baghdad, local Sunni Arab leaders, including tribes, are likely to cooperate with the government against ISIS. This is what happened in 2006, 2007 and 2008. The Kurds, too, might defer exercising the option of going their own way.

The second path for Iraq—in the absence of compromise—will be fragmentation. Kurdistan, which now controls all the disputed territories that were in dispute with Baghdad and has also acquired the oil and gas resources that can make it financially independent, will likely decide to go its own way, forging strong ties with Turkey and the West. Iraq’s southern provinces and the Baghdad government will come under increased Iranian influence. In these areas, militias including some Shiite extremist groups with ties to Hezbollah and the Iranian Quds Force will gain control…..

iraq ngosFollowing the recent outbreak of violence in the Ninewa governorate and the spread of violence to other parts of Iraq, 500,000 people were displaced from within and around the city of Mosul, in the course of just one week, the NGO Coordination Committee for Iraq (NCCI) reports:

Since the end of last year, about 1 million people got displaced inside Iraq due to violence in Anbar, Ninewa and the surrounding governorates. Given the increased likelihood that this conflict will keep spreading to other Iraqi governorates, the number of IDPs will increase even more in the near future.

In response to this protracted crisis, the NGO Coordination Committee for Iraq (NCCI) is increasing its information sharing activities. The enabling of a free flow of information is important within NCCI’s mandate for coordination and is particularly important with regards to the current humanitarian situation in Iraq, which is changing rapidly. NCCI was already issuing weekly iraq ncci logoreports on the security situation in Anbar and the main needs of Anbar IDPs, and has now also started to include information on Ninewa IDPs in these weekly updates. Additionally, NCCI and its member NGOs have developed a mapping of activities that are being carried out on the humanitarian response by the range of different NGOs, which will be further expanded and will be regularly updated.

Will the crisis in Iraq lead to a rapprochement with Iran? Will the effort to strike a nuclear deal expand into a broader agreement? asks Council on Foreign Relations analyst Elliott Abrams;

That is the nightmare of many of our allies in the Middle East, including the Gulf Arab states, Jordan, and Israel. My colleague Max Boot in his blog today explains why it is a dangerous idea to think that we have common interests with the world’s largest state sponsor of terror.  At the Commentary Magazine web site, Max has written “Getting Fooled by Iran in Iraq.” Here is an excerpt: Read more »

Anti-China riots expose tensions in authoritarian Vietnam

vietnam china protestsWhile few analysts view Vietnam’s anti-China riots as the prelude to imminent large-scale domestic political change, the violence has laid bare tensions linked to a spluttering economy, political authoritarianism and uncertainty about the country’s direction, says the FT’s Michael Peel.

“The central dilemma for the communist leadership in Hanoi is that a battle with China has proved a means to rally support – but also a rare and risky potential opening for opposition,” he writes:

Some educated professionals are restless and are considering alternatives, including buying property overseas or even leaving. One entrepreneur says he is thinking of moving to Australia with his young family because of worries ranging from pollution to the quality of the education system. “I look in 10 years’ time and I feel it’s not sustainable,” he says. “Maybe other people think differently”.

Few of these worries can be expressed publicly in a one-party state that has been cracking down hard on dissent. Human Rights Watch says at least eight bloggers and activists have been arrested or convicted this year for “abusing democratic freedoms”, one of them the son of a former Communist party Central Committee member.

Some pro-democracy campaigners say there is little chance of improvement unless the authorities relax their grip and launch broad reforms of the country’s institutions.

“I want top-down change,” says one writer. “Before providing political freedom and free elections, we should have a real market economy, a rule of law system and a civil society.”

Earlier this week, China used a controversial letter that the late Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong sent to his Chinese counterpart, Zhou Enlai, as evidence of Hanoi’s official acknowledgement of China’s sovereignty over the disputed archipelago, VOA’s Trung Nguyen reports:

China seized the Paracels from South Vietnam after engaging in a deadly sea battle in January 1974, killing 74 sailors from the then-U.S.-backed South Vietnamese navy.

Ta Van Tai, a lawyer and former lecturer at Harvard University, told VOA’s Vietnamese Service that Dong’s letter has no “legal validity.” “It is a unilateral declaration, and it did not amount to the territorial concession treaty under the constitution at that time,” Tai said.

Dissidents have long used Dong’s note to criticize the Vietnamese government for conceding its territory to China – a charge Hanoi strongly denies.

“This is a country in which real engagement in politics is pretty much unknown,” says Jonathan London, a professor in the department of Asian and international studies at City University of Hong Kong. “There is a lot of pressure from within the state apparatus itself and from Vietnam’s fledging civil society to use this crisis as an opportunity to strike a new path for the country.”

International norms affirm civil society’s right to funding

protectingcivilspaceGeneral-Principles-5001The ability to seek, receive and use resources is inherent to the right to freedom of association, according to a new report from UN Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai and the Community of Democracies.

The document outlines a set of “general principles” under international human rights norms and standards in an effort to enhance understanding of civil society’s right to access resources. It also provides arguments and legal backing to support specific aspects of each principle, with hyperlinks to source documents.

“The exercise of the right to freedom of association is severely curtailed and rendered null if the access to resources is restricted as demonstrated by the decline in the number of associations, decrease of activities or extinction of other associations,” according to General Principle 1.

General Principle 2 specifies that “states must allow associations to seek, receive and use foreign funding as a part of their obligation under international human rights law to mobilize resources available within the society as a whole and from the interna­tional community.”

Any limitation must pursue a legitimate interest and be necessary in a democratic society; restrictive measures must be the least intrusive means to achieve the desired objective and be limited to the associations falling within the clearly identified aspects characterizing terrorism only.

According to General Principle 3: The civil society and corporate sectors should be governed by an equitable set of rules and regulations – i.e., sectoral equity.

“Governments must refrain from adopting measures that disproportionately target or burden CSOs, such as imposing onerous vetting rules, procedures or other CSO-specific requirements not applied to the corporate sector.”

The principles are extracted from the Special Rapporteur’s 2013 report to the Human Rights Council, which focused on associations’ ability to seek, receive and utilize resources. It is available here in all six UN languages.



Hungary’s new authoritarians: ‘the end of politics’?

Hungaryorban_full_380Critics of Viktor Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party do not fear the harsh tools of Cold War authoritarians—the knock on the door in the middle of the night, the confiscation of unauthorized writings, detention without charge, brutality in custody. But they do need to contend with the creative repressive methods of the new authoritarians, says Princeton University’s Kim Lane Scheppele.

“In the Soviet Union and those Eastern European states that existed in its totalitarian shadow, governments learned that dissidents were often fearless about their own fates. They could be blacklisted, fired, threatened and jailed—and still they would oppose the state,” she writes for The Nation magazine:

Such tactics caused many dissidents to fall silent, writing “for the drawer” instead of samizdat publication or keeping quiet in internal exile in exchange for the opportunity of a career for parents, spouses or children. In that spirit, Fidesz has applied the cruel logic of markets to the family members of its opponents. Given important similarities between other communist-era practices and the current government’s political strategy, this should not have been surprising. But it is shocking nonetheless, because the government so loudly proclaims its opposition to all things that smack of Soviet communism.

If one travels in opposition circles, the economic devastation is obvious. The staff of Hungarian public television, most of whom had not expressed support for Fidesz, were culled in the purge. Nearly all the state employees in the National Development Agency, which allocates EU funds, were fired and replaced by Fidesz loyalists. The entire 300-strong staff of Gábor Demszky, the liberal mayor of Budapest, was fired when he left office, even though most of the workers were not affiliated with the mayor’s party and had many years of experience running the city.

Fidesz’s recent electoral victory was technically free and fair but it was not fought on anything like a level playing field, Scheppele suggests:

Most billboard space in Hungary is dominated by three companies owned by important friends of Fidesz—most prominently, Lajos Simicska, the ex-treasurer of Fidesz, and Zsolt Nyerges, an oligarch close to the party. At first, allied opposition leaders were reluctant to buy billboard space during the campaign because it would have put money in the pockets of their opponents. Then they realized that worse things could happen. But by the time the parties finally set aside their very public differences to organize a coalition and fight Fidesz, they discovered there was no billboard space available; it was sold out for the duration of the campaign.

[Anti-opposition] billboards were placed by the Civil Összefogás Fórum (Civil Unity Forum, or CÖF in Hungarian), a civil-society group that seems to have unlimited amounts of funding, though the leaders of CÖF refuse to identify its sources. How it amassed the funds to pay for the campaign is anyone’s guess. The billboard campaign is estimated to have cost at least $2.5 million in US dollars, in a country where the average annual salary is less than $14,000. CÖF is an AstroTurf group, proclaiming its grassroots origins but withholding information about its members, funding and political affiliations. In fact, there is little separation between CÖF and Fidesz. Fidesz campaigners distributed CÖF literature to voters, and the CÖF billboards were so ubiquitous and unambiguous that most people assumed they were Fidesz ads.

Civil-society groups that backed the allied opposition could have bought billboard space as well—but “civil society” is largely a misnomer in Hungary. Virtually all of the major groups, including churches, are funded by the state, either through the National Civil Fund (now known as the National Cooperation Fund) or direct allocations by Parliament. Few groups have independent or private funding.


Kim Lane Scheppele, the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Sociology and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Princeton University, is a 2013–14 visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study.

Russian rights groups targeted by ‘foreign agents’ law

russia_civilsociety_HRWA Moscow court has ruled against two prominent Russian human rights groups who challenged government orders to register as “foreign agents,” Human Rights Watch said today:

The ruling came several days after Russia’s lower house of parliament approved in first reading a draft law empowering the prosecutor’s office to register independent groups as “foreign agents” against their will. In the weeks before the vote, government agencies in St. Petersburg questioned and inspected several independent groups.

In spring 2013 the prosecutor’s office ordered Memorial Human Rights Center, Golos Association, and Lawyers for Constitutional Rights (JURIX) to register as “foreign agents.” The groups filed a complaint with a court challenging the order. Court hearings on the complaint had been postponed at least three times, until the May 23, 2014 ruling.

Memorial and Golos said they will appeal this latest ruling to the Moscow City Court. If they lose, the groups must either register as “foreign agents,” implying they are somehow anti-Russian, or face a range of possible sanctions, including suspension and fines. The court postponed issuing the ruling on Jurix until June 17, citing the need for additional documents.

Russia’s “foreign agents” law, adopted in July 2012, requires groups that accept foreign funding and engage in “political activity” to register as “foreign agents,” a term commonly understood in Russia to mean foreign spies and traitors. Not a single advocacy group has registered, and instead groups are fighting through the courts the efforts by the authorities to force them to do so. The latest amendments, if adopted, would empower the Ministry of Justice to register the groups without relying on a court ruling.

“Russia is tightening the noose around groups that are critical of the government, propose reforms, and promote human rights,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government seems intent on suffocating prospects for independent scrutiny.”