All posts tagged International Institutions

2015 – Time to Rethink Global Decision Making

Posted by / 15th January 2015 / Categories: Analysis, Opinion, Polis / Tags: , , , / -

As harbingers of a troubled 2015, last week’s events in Paris were a stark reminder that the world is facing a year desperate for clear and benign leadership: the ever increasing complexity of our societies requires thoughtful and wise decision making. Any balance in the globalised world is easily disturbed, and difficult to restore. While humanity as a whole possesses resources as never before, the ways those resources have been allocated in recent times does not bode well. This is particularly visible in international policy making. With organisational bureaucracies bloated, it is increasingly unclear who is responsible for global politics and choices on war and peace, poverty and prosperity, destruction and creation. The world is inevitably turning into a system where no one is in control, and no one is responsible for centralised decisions. The necessary response to this is one of stimulating natural checks and balances, thereby ensuring flexible response mechanisms to disasters and global opportunities alike.

2014 was a year in which the flaws of international decision making processes were painfully exposed, ranging from continued violence around the globe to failing global economic policy and ever present local hardship. The fundamental problem is not one of lack of potential, or of large scale conspiracies, nor of conscious manipulation by those in power. It is one of system creep, in which the answers that human structures provide no longer coincide with the reality of the problems. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq only exacerbated the position of Western nations, causing destruction and mayhem along the way. Huge budgets spent on fundamental issues such as European and global governance, on development cooperation, on human security and economic stimuli show very little bang for their buck.

Those who benefit are people working within the system, within the tools that supposedly serve the wider population; they make a living- and therefore are the primary beneficiaries- by spending money on taxpayer’s behalf to provide specific services. And yet, the productivity of such expenditure is typically alarmingly poor. Trust in European institutions is at an all time low, and the UN is increasingly farcical, with workers and consultants all around the world facing increasing moral dilemmas about their own standard of living compared to those local populations that they are supposed to serve. The Pentagon has consistently failed to show how its actions make the world safer for the average American, but on the flip-side, it does have over 200 golf courses.

The issue is not even limited to the public sector. Share and stakeholders are increasingly left out of the loop in ever-expanding private companies, with internal benefits to be reaped from expansion, even if it makes the general outcomes of operations less effective. One of the main causes of the economic crisis of the past decade was a private sector run amok, without any counterbalance to internal interests and system creep into competitive enterprise. CEO-employee wage ratios are higher than they ever have been in modern society,  without any proven increase of CEO importance in company success. That is not the sign of an evil elites, but of a system not working properly.

Humanity is currently suffering from its own structures, its own institutions; their added value is too low for the resources we spend on them, while their costs are still increasing. System creep is eating away at our structures, and the most fundamental challenge for 2015 will be to halt that trend.

A problem as old as civilisation itself

Throughout history, civilisations ended when clear lines of responsibility faded. During the heyday of the Roman Empire, its bureaucratic bulwarks were unable to react to new threats, leading to unresponsive policy making. These ills were later inherited by the Byzantine Empire, which was also unable to cope with autonomous organisational growth, with systemic interests crowding out effective leadership. China’s Ming dynasty fell from grace in large part because of quarrelling, inward looking bureaucrats and corrupt eunuchs. Tsarist Russia had been in steady decline for decades before revolution finally struck administrative incompetence.  Similar explanations have been used to explain the decline of Babylonian, Egyptian and Classical Mayan empires.

The pattern here is one familiar in current global society: steady growth of social structures and economic welfare, followed by a rapid boom signifying the zenith of society, which then leads to failing checks and balances on ever-growing human organisations. Initially these institutions have clear purpose and add value to society’s growth and wellbeing, but once a certain peak has been reached, they tend towards slow endemic corruption of their original purpose and nature. They begin to hog resources and stifle critical thought, while becoming vehicles for internal interests rather than tools in the hands of political and social leadership. Personal interests by insiders begin to trump social interests, and growth of the system becomes a primary objective, regardless of whether this caters to the needs of its wider environment.

The problems that this systemic expansion brings often remain hidden when social and economic conditions are favourable. They only rear their ugly head when crisis strikes. Then, all of a sudden society is confronted with an inability to react to barbarians at the gates, environmental collapse or internal strife, with institutions consuming the resources necessary to face such existential challenges. Having grown fat and lazy through economic boom, the ability to deal with unexpected downturn evaporates. What is even worse is that these once proud institutions not only have lost purpose, but typically resist attempts to bring back political strength and leadership. They have become hijacked by countless individual, mall-scale agendas that will resist personal loss of status or income. The role large scale organisations play is too abstract to be able to compete with the livelihoods its employees count on. There is no general decision-making process anymore; the initial tool for greater purpose has come to life, and has turned into an independent creature no longer be controlled by its original masters.

The beginning of the end…

The events after 9/11 and the War on Terror were not those of institutions solving existential threats, but rather of using such threats to remain relevant, despite their tremendous costs and long-term destruction. The UN and European Union, having started off with clear direction and purpose, are now mere shadows of their former selves, inhabited by anonymous employees whose livelihoods depends on ever-expanding departments and institutional agendas. Original purpose be damned, the main objective of transnational organisations is their own survival, like an aging male lion increasingly monopolising food supplies to stay alive while the pride that it was supposed to protect starve.

Other global challenges, such as climate change, violent conflicts and lacklustre economic trends, remain largely unsolved, without any serious attempt to deal with such existential threats. Some are even fed to the beast in order to satisfy its hunger. Eisenhower’s warning of the dangers of the military-industrial complex is as valid as it has ever been. Companies, conferences, academic departments and armies of specialists and consultants work on the issue, but they become part of the very same animal that is starving the system. Instead of serving societal needs, they endanger them.

The problem can even be seen at a national level, especially in Western countries. After decades of social and economic growth and steady improvements in democratic and welfare structures, the peak seems to have been reached- perhaps sometime in the 1990s- and the state has well and truly started to move downhill. Governments seem rudderless, managing rather than leading their country. Populism and centric mediocrity compete for favour. Beholden to special interests, and living in fear of losing influence or power, politicians feed the institutional beast rather than putting it on a diet. Après nous le déluge.

…Or the end of the beginning?

Despite similarities with past civilisations, not everything in history repeats itself, and there are a number of fundamental differences between then and now. Firstly, 20th and 21st century globalisation and technological advances increasingly allow for global dynamics, and therefore global responses. This ability to globally communicate, analyse and find solutions dramatically changes the range of options available. Secondly, unlike historical cases, there is no clear antagonist, no barbarians at the gates, attempting to spur on our civilisation’s decline. Thirdly, we have come to understand and appreciate the strength and elegance of natural, decentralised dynamics without heavy handed interference from above, even in societies that emphasise social cohesion and the welfare state. Fourthly, we have the benefit of hindsight. More than ever before we understand the past, and know how and why societies collapsed.

Unlike empires of the past, human society in 2015 is much closer, much more united through natural flows than it has ever been. Even if this increase in scale of operations may have contributed to the system creep discussed above, it also allows for a reversal of such dynamics. Unlike other ages, the current world is in it together; there are no new tribes ready to sack and pillage a decaying empire. No one benefits from collapse, and people all over the planet are facing very similar challenges.

Without downplaying substantial differences in agendas between specific human groups, there is no reason to believe that the general masses around the world are in opposition to each other. There is no such thing as Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, however much certain self-serving institutions and small groups of violent fanatics would have us believe exactly that. The dynamic nature of a planet facing success and failure together means a constant stream of new ideas and alternatives to reverse global society’s fortunes. Dynamic competition and cooperation between ideas, projects and outcomes tend to stimulate the best in human beings. As long as there are no stifling institutional monopolies and systemic beasts starving global society of resources, its modern worldwide nature is in a unique position to bounce back. If society can make institutions work for them, rather than being beholden by institutions’ insatiable appetite, global civilisation could benefit tremendously from technological progress and opportunities.

All of this requires from politicians and social leaders an adjusted set of priorities; not the kind that bloats the circles around them, but the kind that strengthens micro dynamics in their respective societies. We must return to smaller-scale lines of responsibility, with dynamic cooperation and competition in which outcomes, rather than size, are recognised. This also reduces the margin of error, as small scale mistakes, failures or corruption are much more quickly corrected by other micro dynamics than large, centralised, error prone bureaucracies can ever hope to do. Encouraging  institutional cultures in which small is beautiful, and effective outcomes are all that matter, is therefore an absolute priority. The inverse relationship between organisational size and purpose must be understood and recognised. It is a matter of taking pride in small-scale success, and taking responsibility for personal outcomes. It is about not letting the eunuchs get in the way of our civilisation’s survival. Eugene O’Neil sagely wrote that “there is no present or future- only the past, happening over and over again -now”. It is time to prove him wrong.


UN Sanctions on Guinea-Bissau: Waiting For a Coup to Happen

Posted by / 3rd September 2014 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , , , / -

Article Thomas

In April 2012, eleven military leaders involved in the coup d´état in Guinea-Bissau were subjected to a UN travel ban. Although neatly in line with United Nations (UN) sanctions policy regarding sovereignty, in reality the sanctions were a painstakingly late reaction to the uprising of Guinea-Bissau as Africa´s first “narco-state”, which had been corroding politics and society for almost a decade. While institutions kept the Sanctions Committee hostage, the kingpins in Guinea-Bissau had plenty of time to ruin its governance structures. This analysis suggests that Guinea-Bissau only became a target of UN sanctions when it had made its way on the map as the first African “narco-state”. Unfortunately, the coup that justified UN agency to do something about it came almost a decade too late.

On the first of April 2012, just a few days before the second round of a presidential election, a military coup led by Admiral Bubo Na Chuto and Deputy Chief of Staff or the army Antonio Indjai triggered the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to impose travel sanctions on 11 military leaders involved in the coup.

If reversing the coup were the most important objective, the sanctions could probably be called a success. In May 2014, albeit after several delays, a new president (Jose Mario Vaz) was indeed elected in Guinea-Bissau. Also the committee recognised only one violation of the travel ban (the army chief of staff travelled to Cote d´Ivoire and Senegal on one occasion). For the moment the country enjoys relative political stability, although it still suffers from a range of structural threats such as extreme poverty and high corruption levels.

In any way, the coup d´état is largely irrelevant to the story, as the case of sanctions on Guinea-Bissau can hardly be explained as a genuine reaction to it. Guinea-Bissau has been the stage of many coups over the past decades (as have several other African states), and no one ever really bothered.

The coups of Bissau and the Rise of Africa´s first “Narco-State”

Since its Independence from Portugal in 1974, Guinea-Bissau has been the stage of four coup d´état´s and at least 6 other attempts. However, being an insignificant West African country home to less than 2 million inhabitants and with no strategic interest to the rest of the world, it was never important enough to make international headlines.

In 1980 Joao Bernardo Vieira staged the first coup, ousting the country´s first president Luis Cabral and allowing him to rule for the next 19 years. In 1998 another coup attempt split the government forces (supported by neighbouring countries) and coup leaders, who controlled large parts of the army. After 11 months of civil conflict and thousands of deaths, president Vieira was toppled and replaced. The next president, Kumba Yala, lasted for three years before he too was overthrown in 2003 in a military coup. After some tumultuous years, ex-president Vieira made a comeback from being exiled in Portugal and manages to win the 2005 elections. In 2009 he was assassinated by renegade soldiers. None of these events however ignited the urge to install a sanctions regime.

So for the last decades the coups in Guinea-Bissau went largely unnoticed, just as in many other countries that have lived through coup d´états without being targeted by UN sanctions. As long as coup d´états do not turn into bloody civil wars those who stage them tend to stay out of trouble.

So what made the international community change its mind? Since the mid-2000s media coverage on Guinea-Bissau, although still meagre, has become dominated by the issue of drug trafficking. As a small state with weak political infrastructure, high levels of poverty and corruption, and a favourable geography, Guinea-Bissau has turned out to be a perfect place for trafficking drugs from Latin America destined for the European market. The country´s Atlantic coastline is dotted with two dozen little islands that have proven comfortable smuggling havens for Colombian, Ecuadorian, Peruvian, Brazilian and Venezuelan drug cartels that smuggle cocaine into Europe.

In 2008 a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) recognised Guinea-Bissau as a new hub for cocaine trafficking in West Africa. Between 2005 and 2007 a total of 33 tons of cocaine were intercepted in West Africa on route to Europe, compared to a mere 1 ton prior to 2005. With the drug trafficking increasingly penetrating into Guinean society and politics, the peace building and democratisation efforts of the UN peace-building mission in Guinea-Bissau (UNIOGBIS) were largely undermined. The trafficking business negatively affected public security, respect for the rule of law, and public health (because of increased local consumption). Politics became increasingly corrupted, with politicians and military leaders being involved.

As the situation worsened in 2010 and 2011, donors retrieved and the European Union (EU) decided to stop training Guinean security forces and suspends part of its aid. The United States froze the assets of two drug-traffickers, and the UNODC and Interpol helped Guinea-Bissau set up a Transnational Crimes Unit. In the meantime the two alleged drug kingpins subjected to US asset freezes were promoted to Army Chief (Antonio Indjai) and head of the Navy (Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto). Tchuto was arrested by the American Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in international waters on 4 April 2012 (8 days before the coup) and is currently on trial. Indjai has also been indicted by the United States but still walks free in Bissau. On 12 April 2012, when the military toppled the interim government, Indjai was placed on the UN travel ban list along with 10 other military officials.

How institutions strangle effective sanctions policy

Guinea-Bissau´s timeline shows a variety of coup d´états and attempted coups, none of which seemed important enough to arouse real attention. When the country increasingly turned into a cocaine transfer-port and a weak state, it became clear something had to be done in order to protect the interests of those suffering from this trade. However, imposing UN sanctions on a sovereign state in reaction to smuggling activities was not a policy option. So the only option was to wait for a ´legitimate´ excuse, such as a civil war, a terrorist attack, or indeed a military coup.

Coup d´états have been an accepted imperative for UN sanctions since the early 1990s and the sanctions regime on Haiti to reinstall President Aristide, who was ousted in a military coup in 1991. In the late 1990s the UN Sanctions Committee also increased the technical and legal capacity to impose targeted sanctions on individuals. Since 1999 the UN has imposed and implemented asset freezes and travel sanctions on individuals and groups in over a dozen conflicts, with mixed success. However, when it comes to reversing coup d´états, the case of Guinea-Bissau is the first one since that of Haiti in the early 1990s.

During the coups of 1999 and 2003 and the assassination of Vieira in 2009, the UN Security Council and the Sanctions Committee had all the technical capacity and institutional consensus to interfere with the internal politics of Guinea-Bissau. However, apparently the coup d´états in an insignificant country such as Guinea-Bissau were not important enough to arouse sufficient attention in the UNSC. With the 2012 coup the UNSC finally had a legal excuse to impose sanctions on the individuals implicated in the drug trafficking. However, by then Guinea-Bissau had already become fully integrated in the drug-cartel; the damage had already been done.

The case of Guinea-Bissau shows that the reality of UN sanctions as an institution is one of restrictions and obstacles rather than one about values and norms. The sanctions were clearly a reaction to the drug trafficking that had been undermining Bissau-Guinean politics and society since 2005 or longer. However, in order to impose sanctions they first needed a coup d´état to take place. Unfortunately that coup didn´t come until 2012, when Guinea-Bissau´s transformation to “narco-state” had already been completed and had thoroughly disrupted and corrupted governance.

Would things have turned out different if the UN had imposed sanctions earlier? Perhaps not; UN travel bans are not almighty tools of political coercion. However, the case of Guinea-Bissau does show how institutionalised rules regarding sanctions policy can delay and distort effective decision-making. If those actors interested in pursuing drug-kingpins (US, EU) just transparently put forward their interests and security concerns, rather than waiting for a coup d´état to take place to justify their actions, it would be much easier for analysts to keep oversight and for actors to take timely action.