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Africa, Burma, Conflict Prevention; Responsibility to Protect, Governance, Leadership, Mali

Odious States, Humanitarian Responses

            Repressive, odious, nation-states eventually implode. That is at least one of the significant messages of the Arab spring, summer, and autumn of 2011.  But such states – the worst of the worst — never implode neatly, effortlessly, or, in the most difficult cases, without external assistance.  How to calibrate that external assistance so that it can produce the greatest benefit for the greatest number of impacted and oppressed citizens is one important question. A second is the equally thorny question of how best should world order respond to cries of oppression from within despotisms and tyrannies before  internal implosions occur. Absent the rising up of civil forces in repressive nation-states, indeed before there is any obvious tumult, what is the responsibility of world order?  Does the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine have any significant policy power going forward? Should world order plan to build upon its successful employment during the interventions in Libya and Mali? If so, how?

Repressive States

There is a class of nation-state, possibly numbering a dozen at any one time, that so abuses its own people that it deserves to be classified as odious. Indeed, some of the greatest threats to global stability in this century come not from the powerful hegemonic powers battling each other but from smaller, much less intrinsically powerful, entities refusing to follow the principles of civility that customarily guide, or are supposed to guide, world order.  These outlaw nations, mostly near-failed, failed, or collapsed states, attack their own peoples, show little respect for the human rights of their subjects, deny civil liberties and essential freedoms, and at best pretend to be democratic.[1] These heavy repressors breach official conventions and treaties such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Over and over they offend against global human rights norms.  A handful of these internally demonic nation-states also behave provocatively in their regions by being nasty to their neighbors or by being serial offenders against international norms of proper behavior.  But in the main these kinds of states imperil the peace of the world primarily by abusing their inhabitants so severely that instability and internal conflict are likely outcomes.

Those states that thus operate beyond the international normative pale are characterized by the withdrawal of fundamental human rights and civil liberties from their own peoples. They mock democracy. They employ the mailed fist to compel obedience and achieve compliance and conformity. They obliterate the rule of law, assassinating and imprisoning opponents. They take political prisoners, employ collective punishment of families or lineages, and apply rules and sanctions capriciously. They run command economies that restrict individual entrepreneurial initiative and opportunity to themselves and their clients and are wildly corrupt. Wealth sticks to their hands and the hands of their close associates even if vast numbers of citizens go hungry or starve.  In nearly all cases these regimes depend upon a leader’s personality cult; ideologies are far less salient than mere obedience. Cultures of dependency and conformity result.

Terror inhabits most of these repressive nation-states. Their rulers are arbitrary and unpredictable, the better to intimidate their agents and their citizens. They often succeed in inculcating a widespread feeling of mental impotence and lethargy among their subjects. Heavy-handed presidents and prime ministers hence cow their citizens by a succession of quixotic, idiosyncratic, ruthless behaviors and by seductive exercises of cooptation – sometimes mixed with mindless brutalities. Malevolent rulers like those of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Ayatollah Khomeni’s Iran, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Than Shwe’s Burma, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea, the Turkmenbashi’s Turkestan, Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier’s Haiti, Idi Amin’s Uganda, Jean-Bedel Bokassa’s Central African Empire, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo’s Equatorial Guinea, and Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe manipulate and suppress their followers and their countries by spontaneous cruelties, thuggishly maintained obedience, harsh reprisals, deprivations (of food or freedoms), and mind-numbing speechifying. Subjects cannot easily escape, defect, or protest – until suddenly they do.

Using these and similar indicators such as counting political prisoners or observing the rise in rates of infant mortality, it is possible to separate the most offensive nation-states – the worst of the worst – from those who are merely smaller-scale abusers.  To do so, and in order to compare and contrast one oppressive despotism from another, we need to discover each regime’s current numbers of political prisoners, house arrestees, secret incarcerations, murders or attempted murders of political opponents, unexplained disappearances, and instances of torture. We need further to document cases of collective punishment, impositions of conformity, and the duration of pretrial detention of political offenders. We want to know the extent of rape and other violence against women, the number of forced abortions, the prevalence of child labor, and the scale of trafficking of women, children, small arms, and narcotics.[2]

We can further assess a regime’s repressiveness by counting its police per capita; the number of security forces per capita (North Korea’s and Burma’s are unusually high); the scope of interference with privacy; the imposition of restrictions to religious freedom; the use of travel bans (internal and external); curtailments of freedom of expression, speech and the media; the absence of freedom of assembly and association (very common); abuses of the rule of law; the denial of judicial independence; the use of food and hunger as controlling instruments; externally estimated depths of corruption; the imposition of personality cults (as in the “Little Green Book”); harassment of Internet use; and its discrimination against minorities.

When we use such screens to sort among the world’s 194 or so recognized nation-states for gross repressiveness and mere high repressiveness we rapidly  develop a list of nation-states that are of extreme concern to world order because of the harmful manner in which they brutalize their own citizens. Admittedly, the screens depend on the kinds of data that are difficult to obtain; odious states are usually loath to provide statistics giving the number of political prisoners, assassinations, and torture victims. Nor do they willingly admit to the deployment of collective punishment or mass starvation as weapons of repression. Nevertheless, employing a myriad of estimates, proxy measures, and smuggled data, it is possible at any one point in time to focus on nation-states where populations are severely at risk.[3] Reports filed by the likes of various United Nations’ Rapporteurs; Human Rights Watch; Amnesty International; relief and development organizations such as Doctors without Borders, Mercy Corps, or Care International; internally- and externally-based journalists; and scholars inside and outside the relevant countries all contribute significant observations capable of being aggregated and scrutinized.  Not least, respected internationally-compiled assessments such as Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, the UN Development Program’s Human Development Index (HDI), and various estimates of maternal mortality and life expectancy prepared by the World Health Organization offer comparative insights into a nation-state’s weaknesses and strengths. If GDPs per capita are stagnant or falling, if life expectancy is sinking, if corruption is rampant, and if HDI rankings are poor, the relevant countries are more likely than not to be depriving their populations of basic human rights as well as effective good governance. The observations of journalists, scholars, relief and development groups, and so on can supplement and deepen the internationally available quantitative data across many relevant dimensions.

In 2007, a published designation of the worst of the worst listed (in descending order, from most grossly repressive to highly repressive) North Korea, Turkmenistan, Burma, Zimbabwe, Belarus, Equatorial Guinea, Togo, Uzbekistan, Syria, and Tunisia as the globe’s most odious regimes.[4]Cuba, Iran, and Libya were other nation-states considered for inclusion in this list, but Egypt and Yemen – despite being known as states run by authoritarians, were not.


North Korea and Turkmenistan

North Korea and Turkmenistan (especially under the bizarre rule from 1991 to 2006 of Saparmurad Niyazov, who called himself “Turkmenbashi” or “head of all Turkmen”) were the nation-states that then exceeded and still exceed all others in their contempt for their own citizens, their cults of despotic personality, and their deprivations of the essential freedoms — even freedom from hunger. Neither place has ever exhibited respect for human or individual rights, for natural law, or for providing or permitting their inhabitants  fundamental health and educational opportunities, much less regular jobs and the possibility of prosperity. Despite the exploitation of abundant reserves of natural gas in Turkmenistan and aid from South Korea and China in the case of North Korea, both populations remained poor by design and fiat, not by circumstance. Indeed, for much of the last fifty years or more, North Korea has remained “hermetically sealed.”  In Turkmenistan’s case, Niyazov’s death in 2006 should have brought about the major improvements in welfare that were promised by his successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, but they have been glacially slow in arriving.[5]


Burma (Myanmar) was appropriately third on the 2007 list of gross repressors. Its ruling military junta (the State Peace and Development Committee) under Senior General Than Shwe had long incarcerated and tortured thousands of political prisoners; denied all conceivable human rights; profited collectively and personally by extravagant forms of  corruption;  compelled conformity through brutality; eviscerated the country’s once proud agricultural, economic, medical, and educational infrastructures; annulled the results of the country’s only free election in 1990; imposed new artificial participatory structures; and held the nation’s most prominent democrat and Nobel Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi,  under house arrest for the better part of twenty years.[6] But in late 2010, Than Shwe and his military associates released Daw Suu Kyi and installed a militarily-dominated “elected” parliament under a junta-written constitution. Few observers expected  anything more than cosmetic changes to the repressive manner in which Burma had been ruled since 1962.

Instead, in 2011 Burma gradually emerged from its long authoritarian cocoon. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit there in December, the first by such a high-ranking American official for more than fifty years, signaled Burma’s possible emergence into chrysalis form. Under the presidential leadership of Thein Sein, a former general installed by the junta and Than Shwe, more than 100 political prisoners were released; Daw Suu Kyi was permitted to travel the country, give political speeches, and stand for election to parliament; the construction of a Chinese-sponsored hydroelectric dam on the upper Irrawaddy River was suspended; heavy censorship was lifted a little, and later more significantly; and Thein Sein and his team started making the kinds of noises which conceivably augured well for the future of human rights in Burma.  His regime restored freedom of assembly early in 2013.

Observers inside and outside Burma, even in the U. S. Department of State and Beijing’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, were unsure why Thein Sein and the junta had moved to  liberalize by gesture and deed, however tentatively. Some speculated that Burma’s rulers were trying to diversify away from their decades-long reliance upon and warm embrace by China. Burma had been in serious danger of losing its effective national autonomy. Thein Sein sought Western approval for that reason and in order to modernize the autarchic, creaky, and long neglected economic apparatus of the state. He and the junta may also have wanted global backing, Than Shwe and others having finally realized that Burma could only take full advantage of its relatively recent finds of natural gas and petroleum, and of it enviable strategic position on the Andaman Sea (and the Indian Ocean) by indicating a willingness not to obviate tight control over the population but to acknowledge that control could still be exercised by subtle rather than heavy-handed means.[7]  It was time, in other words, for Burma to come in from the cold.

Those were and are all probable reasons why Burma suddenly decided to try to leave the company of the world’s most repressive states. But there is one more: the events of the Arab spring may well have had a profound impact on a regime even as remote geographically as Burma from the events that took place in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. As fully repressive as Than Shwe and his associates had managed to be for so long (going back to Ne Win’s era  from 1962 to 1988, and then afterwards), they probably saw their future as Buddhist believers in numerology and other mystical pursuits as compromised by events on the other side of the globe. This logic, not easily refutable, probably assumed that even in a country as thoroughly controlled as Burma, the masses, long restive and periodically agitated by young monks, could again become a potent force capable of disturbing military rule and depriving the key members of the junta of their corrupt gains and family legacies. In a year that saw three heads of state indicted by the International Criminal Court and one ousted head of state transported to The Hague for trial, Burma’s rulers may have understood their intrinsic vulnerability. We might therefore view the Burmese political dawn as an attempt to modernize and preserve authoritarian rule before it was too late. In that sense, the lessons of the Arab spring will have been potent, formative, indeed transformational – providing that Suu Kyi and Clinton’s  belief in the promised tendencies of Burma’s rulers are realized in 2013 and beyond.

Zimbabwe and the African Cases

            Even though former president Lawrence Gbagbo of Cote d’Ivoire was forcibly brought before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in late 2011, Africa’s long-standing tyrants, unlike Burma’s, showed no signs of heeding any of the possible lessons of the Arab spring. Mugabe and  Obiang Nguema continued to prey upon their own constituents and citizens. Having rigged six elections systemically since 2000, Mugabe in 2013 was preparing despite his advanced age and frail health to ignore the democratizing strictures of his country’s 2009 Government of National Unity (a South African-imposed working arrangement combining Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front  [ZANU-PF]  together with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change [MDC]) and hold a national election even before a new voters’ roll had been established and an independent electoral commission were in place. Bolstered by new-found wealth from alluvial diamond deposits, Mugabe (like Obiangs Nguema with his vast petroleum receipts) had the wherewithal to continue to corrupt his security forces and provide patronage for crucial other indigenous power brokers.

Since 1980 Mugabe has presided over an increasingly brutal, unremittingly corrupt and corrupted, and thoroughly intolerant regime that as late as the end of 2012 was still killing and maiming its opponents, refusing to share effective power (despite the 2009 agreement) with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his MDC team of ministers, keeping most diamond-derived revenues for Mugabe and his close associates and not giving them to the federal exchequer, and regularly reneging on promises made to South Africa and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) about advancing democratic practices within Zimbabwe. Mugabe’s ZANU-PF still prevented private broadcasters from being licensed to compete against state radio and television, only reluctantly earlier in 2011 permitted an independent daily newspaper that it had bombed and shuttered in 2004 to reopen, and continued to try to take the remaining 250 (of an original 4000) white-owned farms away from their proprietors by force (and despite SADC legal rulings to the contrary). Backed by China, Mugabe was importing small arms and other security equipment from Beijing despite UN sanctions, and sponsoring a national campaign to intimidate  opponents and their followers well before any possible national election. Despite being at the head of a nominal democracy, Mugabe and his military and political associates have ruled by fear and terror since at least 2000. Even his prime minister and nominal political partner has been attacked, held on terror charges, and often ignored.

Along with Togo under Faure Gnassingbe, the son who in 2005 inherited his deprived, intimidated, and corrupted country from his father, Equatorial Guinea has been held forcefully in thrall by Obiang Nguema since 1979, when he ousted his uncle, an equally notorious and thuggish president. Obiangs Nguema should be regarded as a Weberian “sultan,” exercising complete power unencumbered by any rules or any commitment to ideological or any other sets of values. Routine violence shapes everyday life.[8] Little Equatorial Guinea, an impoverished slice of the West African mainland and a petroleum-rich off-shore island, might have been ignored in this chapter and in world politics were it not for its oil – it is Africa’s fourth largest supplier to the world, especially to the United States and China – and its old-fashioned, Turkmenistan-like, brutalities. Similar to tiny Togo, under dictatorship since 1978,  Equatorial Guinea ranks toward the nasty end of index after index measuring the availability of human rights, the presence of corruption, the weakness of human development, the extent of mis-governance, police numbers per capita, health and welfare weaknesses, educational insufficiencies, and sheer mendacity. Whether an awareness of the reach of the Arab spring, or the long arm of the ICC, will make any difference to one-man rule in either case is unclear (and unlikely), but in Equatorial Guinea, for sure, prevailing illiteracy, lack of access to social media and the Internet, widespread poverty (despite oil), and general inexperience of Obiang Nguema’s subjects makes any revolution from below unlikely. Thus in this case as in Zimbabwe’s (where possible ICC indictments have been investigated), Togo’s, Angola’s, Congo’s,  the Sudan’s, and others the role of possible outside intervention still remains to be explored. In these cases, is there a global Responsibility to Protect which needs to be considered and possibly implemented?  (( discussed below.)

Belarus and Uzbekistan

            Alexandr Lukashenko, Europe’s lone tyrant and the president of anomalous Belarus, resembles Mugabe much more than ObiangNguema or Gnassingbe in his behavior and rhetoric. His people are much more literate and wealthier per capita than those in Africa, and he has not systematically used hunger as a weapon in the Mugabe and Pol Pot manner. But he long ago perfected a strategy of repression with such force that contemporary Belarus, especially after the  flawed election, arrests of opponents, and general persecution of protestors in 2011, belies its European geographical setting and its aspirations to be considered a modern state. Lukashenko’s regime harasses anyone holding antithetical views, often hounding them out of private jobs. His minions respect no rights of privacy and restrict access to independent thinking and education. Judges obey the executive. Election results are manipulated and arranged. Lukashenko blusters and brutalizes like Mugabe, rides roughshod over human rights, and practices the well-learned Soviet arts of spying, intimidation, collective punishment, denial of expression and assembly freedoms, and attempts – successfully so far – to stem the tide of participatory change that ebbs north from Ukraine and eastwards from Poland and modern Europe. Even Russia, of which Belarus was once an integral part, can do little to check Lukashenko’s determination to resist change and democratization.

Like the great Soviet bosses from which he learned his despotic skills, Lukashenko has advanced the arts of soft and hard repression by terrorizing his own associates and cabinet ministers, by keeping government employees on short-term contracts, by blackmailing (a la Mugabe) senior and junior officials, and by running a determinedly patrimonial state. Patronage, in other words, nakedly makes the state work, as it does in nearly all of the repressive polities discussed in this chapter. Patronage mandates dependence, as it did in Mobuto Sese Seko’s Zaire/Congo. In these kinds of states there can be no nonexecutive sources of economic power or employment. Information flows must also be organized from the center, access to social media restricted (difficult on the periphery of Europe), and ideological indoctrination made into a high art.  Belarus, as in Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya, Kim Jong-Il’s  North Korea, and the Turkmenbashi’s Turkmenistan, has its handbook of authorized ideas and aphorisms. A youth brigade has imbibed and enforced such dicta, and every school and workplace, Soviet and Chinese style, has had its ideological controller.

            Lukashenko learned from his years as a Soviet regional boss. So did Islam Karimov, in Uzbekistan, a cotton-growing wasteland athwart the once fabled Silk Road from inner Asia. More modern and sophisticated in many ways than Kim Jong-Il , Karimov still rules supremely, deploying sufficient brutality and arbitrary capriciousness to terrorize his people and maintain his flagging regime’s dominance over democratic and Islamist opponents. His regime’s corruption is legendary. He and his associates (including his daughter, an heiress apparent) also benefit from Uzbekistan’s strategic location on a key transport route (needed by the United States) to and from Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan has no significant institutions to keep the all-powerful executive in check. The legislature is a rubber stamp and cabinet ministers cower in the presence of Karimov.  No human rights or civil liberties are respected. Free expression was long ago banished and sources of information, naturally, are tightly controlled and restricted. Islamists languish in prison along with several thousand political detainees. Torture is routinely employed by the security forces, journalists are beaten for “defaming the nation,” and – as in so many of the worst of the worst cases discussed here – citizens keep their opinions to themselves and fear the secret police.[9]

Syria and Tunisia, Egypt and Libya

            The authors of two original studies of repression and human rights violations in Syria and Tunisia believed in 2007 that their relatively prosperous, highly literate, reasonably sophisticated authoritarian states would gradually become less brutal and more conscious of the benefits of opening up their regimes to new currents of economic and political thought.[10] Indeed, when the top nominees for the world’s most odious nation-states were released in 2007, Tunisia’s inclusion (but not Syria’s) startled most observers who had not been closely following events inside the country. The global human rights community knew that President Zine El Abidene Ben Ali’s regime held numerous political prisoners, tortured, censored the media, and never tolerated dissent, but Tunisia’s cultural closeness to France and its decades of relative calm had lulled most analysts of North Africa into assuming that Ben Ali’s subjects were comparatively satisfied. Likewise, many still believed that President Bashar al-Assad, the young ophthalmologist who had succeeded his always scheming father in 2000, was at heart sensibly Western and would shy away from his father’s many rapacious excesses.  How wrong we were!

The Syrian government throughout the first thirteen years of the twenty-first century has curbed the right of peaceful assembly; prevented freedom of association and trade unionization; routinely practiced torture; held thousands of political prisoners, some of whom mysteriously “disappeared;” condemned dissidents as traitors after unfair trials; shut down opposition web sites; and channeled nearly all economic opportunity to relatives or friends of the ruling family. Spying also became a well-practiced art. Syria’s ambassador to the United States even admitted being from a “rogue” state that harbored and sponsored terrorists.[11]

Like Syria, Tunisia was a police state, with 150,000 police in a country of 10 million – more proportionally than Britain, France, or Germany. Elections, held periodically to appease international public opinion, were manipulated and opponents routinely brutalized.  Civil society was largely prohibited, the media “asphyxiated.”

Under Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s founding president, the impress of authoritarian rule was somehow softened by his founding father legitimacy and by the absence of overt avarice. The country also became an oasis of relative peace in a turbulent region consumed by strife next door in Algeria, and by coups in Libya and Egypt. Tunisia’s comparatively high levels of development (it was the wealthiest country per capita when the worst of the worst were epitomized in 2007) also sanctified Bourguiba’s guidance. Unfortunately, Bourguiba aged and weakened; Ben Ali pushed him out of office in 1987 and proceeded to “cleanse” the country. Ben Ali eliminated Islamists and other rivals, imprisoned critics, and organized a militia of thugs to maintain control. Ben Ali’s operatives also micro-managed and over-regulated commerce and daily life throughout the country. Bourguiba’s mild legacy had been well-obscured by late 2010.

The cataclysm that erupted in early 2011 in Tunisia and then engulfed Egypt, Libya, the Yemen, and finally Syria demonstrated that the fires of freedom can smolder for decades within oppressed and resentful populations before they finally ignite in the kinds of conflagrations that quickly swept Ben Ali away and, for many months in 2011,  2012, and 2013 provided gathering pyres for Assad and his associates. Once widespread urban-located protests commence in earnest, the experiences of the Arab spring show, military suppression – no matter how callous of life and injury — rarely quenches the flames. Cooptation sometimes succeeds for a time, as it did in Egypt, but a rapid embrace and legitimation of any protest is surer. Sustainable peace and harmony rarely flows from the barrels of guns. More often it provokes countervailing militant attacks, as in Syria. Thereafter, as in Tunisia, Egypt, Serbia, and Kyrgystan, once a crowd realizes that officers and soldiers (being common, poorly-paid, folk) are no longer loyal to the hated regime, the crowd loses it fears and surges forward in a triumph that may finally come to Syria sometime in 2013..

That happened in all of the Arab cases. In Libya, however, the counter-attack by Qaddafi and his mercenary legions might have overrun Benghazi and retained power for a time were it not for opportune intervention by NATO, Qatar, and the United States and several European countries, especially France. Thus it was that the Western decision to act boldly in Libya, backed by the Arab League and Turkey, permitted a problematic local rebellion of middle-class freedom seekers eventually to triumph decisively over Qaddafi.  No one had suspected in 2010 that the autocracies of Tunisia and Egypt would soon be democratized, nor that protestors in Syria and the fractured Yemen would soon follow their Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts. Nor could Qaddafi’s demise have been predicted after thirty-five years of idiosyncratic, tyrannical, one-man rule.

The Fire Next Time

            The overturning of some of the globe’s more repressive regimes – notably Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia – and the indicting of heads of state (Cote d’Ivoire, Libya, and the Sudan), cabinet ministers and officials (Libya, Kenya, and the Congo), and warlords (the Congo) by the ICC neither means the end of impunity for dictators and autocrats nor the end of state-sponsored attacks on civilians. In 2013, the North Koreas, Turkmenistans, Uzbekistans, and Zimbabwes of the world remain active and their rulers and ruling classes continue freely to abuse citizens and constituents.Eritrea,  Equatorial Guinea and Togo, led by despots, are much as they were. Cameroon, Chad,  the Sudan, and Swaziland, in Africa, are almost as badly tainted. So is Laos in Southeast Asia, Kazakhstan in Central Asia, Iran in the Middle East, and Venezuela and Cuba in the Americas. China and Russia both govern arbitrarily and deny or abridge many of the normal freedoms. The list could continue, but at least Burma may have taken a turn for the better, and may conceivably improve its appalling human rights record over time. But hundreds of prisoners remain to be released, exiles welcomed home, and fully participatory elections have yet to be held.

As the Arab spring has demonstrated so well, protests against these and any new examples of state repression must usually come from within. Some Tunisians and Egyptians had benefited from capacity building in the techniques of non-violent resistance, learning in part from the popular uprisings in Serbia and Ukraine.[12] And the Libyan, the Syrian, and the Yemeni protest movements would not have occurred absent success in Tunisia and Egypt. The use of new social media forms and methods was also critical to the crowd-massing techniques in Tunisia and Egypt, later in the Yemen, and finally in sectors of Syria. In Libya, to gather and disburse information, and to mobilize defenders and attackers against Qaddafi and his legions, demanded the imaginative deployment of social media and text messaging. Revolutionary achievements depend now on cell towers and strong signals more than ideology and oratory.

Outsiders can also play a strong role in ensuring the triumph of internal insurrections. In the Yemen, Saudi and United Arab Emirates (UAE) diplomats played a brokering role between President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the various protest movements. The Saudis and the United States also understood more than others, and often more than the Saleh government, where protestors were active and where they were not. In Syria, pressure from the Arab League, its sanctions and European Union sanctions (and refusals to purchase petroleum), were all decisive in weakening the Assad grip on Syria. Turkey’s antagonism, barriers to cross-border trade, and willingness to harbor anti-Assad militants was also critical. But in Libya, the people’s military victory over Qaddafi and his army could not have happened without intelligence of regime troop and air movements obtained by NATO and shared with the Libyan transitional forces. The European and American blockade of Tripoli and other Qaddafi-controlled ports was also significant, as was the supply of arms and decisive military equipment to the insurgents by France, Qatar, the US, and others. Some NATO special forces may also have deployed covertly on the ground.

That much is obvious. Libya could not have been freed so readily from Qaddafi’s stifling grip without assistance and strong support from the Arab League and the West. But Libya is a very special case. Qaddafi had offended his fellow Arab rulers and most of the powerful nations belonging to Arab league. After Ben Ali’s quick exit from Tunisia and President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster from Egypt, Qaddafi’s loss of legitimacy was swift. No one, except a few sub-Saharan African client-states, saw any virtue in his continued suzerainty. His capture and death, awkward and inhumane as they were, seemed a fit end.

Absent dramatic internal rumblings in Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, the West is hardly poised to intervene there on behalf of human rights. Only if Russia, in whose neighborhood those states are, itself decided to champion the oppressed in some or all of those countries could insurgents rely on assistance from either the near- or the far-abroad.  Likewise, there is no appetite to upset China by moving against nuclear-armed North Korea, even during times of widespread regime-induced starvation. Even with regard to Zimbabwe, where an aging ruler has long defied the preferences of his  neighbors and perpetuated a despotic regime that has lost all international credibility and local legitimacy, there is no appetite for externally-induced regime change or ruler removal. Only a wave of impermissible atrocities, as Qaddafi was perpetuating in Libya, might move powerful neighbors or outsiders in these and similar cases to act in time, or at all.


What is to be done?

World order may say “never again” to another Rwandan genocide, but small scale mass killings are common from Thailand to Ecuador, Mugabe still uses hunger as weapon against his own people, President Omar al-Bashir’s aircraft strafe non-Arab sections in the south of the newly truncated Sudan  and raze the dwellings of opponents in the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountain districts. Can anything now be done in similar weak, failed, and collapsed states to protect the weak and curtail countries that prey harmfully on their own citizens?

The inhabitants of failed states like Afghanistan, Congo (Kinshasa), and the Sudan are particularly at risk.  By definition, such states have lost the monopoly of violence; they are at war with themselves. Such failed and a handful of very weak states are so internally fractured, so illegitimate in the eyes of large numbers of their citizens, and so corrupt that they no longer perform for their inhabitants. That is, their levels of governance are quantifiably low.[13] It follows that such states demonstrate little respect for fundamental human rights. They prefer the law of the jungle to the rule of law. Most of their human development responsibilities are honored in the breach. Economically, they are deficient, and in most cases (other than once oil-rich Sudan) they do not grow rapidly, leaving their populations in poverty. In many of these states, non-state actors (warlords) proliferate and killings, rapes, and other abuses are perpetrated by both the state and its opponents.

No regional or sub-regional institutions exist to right failed states or the collapsed state of Somalia. No are there any effective mechanisms available to prevent weak states from becoming failed states in the manner of Cote d’Ivoire in 2000 – 2001. British paratroopers are not moving in to restore security and order as they did in Sierra Leone in 2000, as France did in Mali in 2013, as Syria did when Lebanon was a failed state in the 1970s, and as Russia did in Tajikistan in the 1990s. Sometimes the UN has mounted an effective peace enforcement operation, as in Liberia from 2003.  But most UN missions, as in Darfur or the eastern Congo, have been holding operations. They have sometimes lacked the mandates, sometimes the troops, and sometimes the political will to prevent failed or weak states from pummeling their own, or permitting warlords to do the same. (When the M23 rebel movement captured Goma in 2012, UN troops watched.)  In Somalia, the African Union peacekeeping detachment in Mogadishu was for much of 2010 and 2011 too weak to overcome al-Shabab and project any power beyond the capital city.  Only when Ethiopian, Kenyan, and Ugandan troops entered the battle scene in 2012 and 2013 could al-Shabab be ousted from Kismayu, Baidoa, and other strategic towns, and a measure of peace be restored to Mogadishu.

Knowing that international peace enforcement and peacekeeping interventions are  often ineffective, slow off the mark, indecisive, and under-resourced, coalitions of the willing or unilateral actions have often proved productive. Syria into Lebanon and Russia into Tajikistan have already been noted. Of equal significance, Tanzanian troops ousted Idi Amin from cruelly-run Uganda in 1979. Directed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a predominantly Nigerian task force  dampened violence in Liberia after 1990. Australia sent soldiers and sailors twice to support peace processes in the Solomon Islands in 2003 and 2006. They were also active in Timor Leste in 1999, but at the request of the UN. A renegade Lesotho was corralled by South African and Botswanan soldiers in 1998-1999, but at the nominal behest of SADC. Ethiopian forces eliminated the hegemony in southern Somalia of the Union of Islamic Courts in 2006. It is evident from these and other scattered examples that interventions for legitimate peace-creating purposes have their place in ending despotism and removing abusers from power. Whereas national violators of human rights have traditionally been immune from direct global sanctions because of a misplaced sense of sovereign immunity, their excesses occasionally provoke hard-edged martial responses from powerful neighbors and near-neighbors or from groups of them. After ousting dictators or stanching civil wars, those “invasions” have enhanced the quality of life and education and health opportunities in former despotisms. At the very least, they prevented tyrants from continuing to abuse their populations.

But it would be unwise to rely on such direct initiatives to safeguard vulnerable peoples across the globe. Thailand never considered saving the Cambodians under Pol Pot. Its neighbors never thought before late 2012 of intervening in the Central African Empire.  Nor did France. SADC and South Africa are not crossing national frontiers to impose justice on Zimbabwe. Nor is massive Nigeria prepared to right hideous wrongs in nearby Equatorial Guinea. The Sudan is sovereign within its borders, despite systemic attacks on dissenting peoples along its new southern frontier and in Darfur. The Laotian government is allowed to violate the human rights of its citizens. No one is curbing excesses in Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan, or even in Turkmenistan.  Until an indigenous freedom movement arose in Libya, or in Tunisia, outsiders were hardly anxious to intervene. Nor, one assumes, did any powerful state even contemplate such adventures.

Responsibility to Protect

            The new Responsibility to Protect norm, discussed by the United Nations in 2005 and again in 2009, but never formally accepted or ratified, provides an umbrella rationale under which world order should in theory rescue citizens in countries at risk and intervene in countries that have crossed some red line between general nastiness and wholesale abuse. The latter category could legitimately be restricted, say, to situations where states and rulers are committing crimes against humanity according to The Hague conventions of 1899 and 1907, the statute of the Nuremburg Tribunal, the 1948 Genocide Convention, the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the additional protocols to the Geneva Conventions in 1977, the statutes of the International Tribunals for Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.  These instruments regulate human conduct during war and prohibit genocide, ethnic cleansing, enumerated specific crimes against humanity, and all manner of mass- and non-mass atrocities. Although imprecise, these prohibitions comprise an overarching norm that should be sufficiently robust to hinder renewed attacks on civilians or groups.[14] Certainly the ICC and the several tribunals can base their own prosecutions (and subsequent judgments) on the various violations of appropriate and decent conduct that are enumerated in the conventions and statutes.

By at least some readings of the Genocide Convention, the UN and member states are “obligated” to prevent and suppress acts of genocide.[15] But the means to obligate the obligation are not yet available in world order. Nor are thresholds easily defined for genocide or ethnic cleansing even in those heinous situations where it appears obvious that there has been or that there is about to unfold a “mass destruction” of a human collectivity.

The Rome Statute is much more precise: A crime against humanity is any systematic attack against civilians that includes murder, extermination, enslavement, forcible transfers, imprisonment or severe deprivations of physical liberties, torture, rape, and sexual slavery. Crimes against humanity are always “large” in scale. There is some thought that crimes against humanity must also be premeditated and willful of intent. Because the provisions of the Rome Statute were written for interstate rather than intrastate wars, the more prevalent form of combat in this century, they were not meant to apply to riots and sporadic acts of violence, but they were and are intended to cover protracted armed civil conflicts between governments and non-state actors.

Individual rulers and leaders are, according to the Rome Statute, held responsible for crimes against humanity perpetrated by a country’s armed battalions or soldiers. The mistreatment of civilians in the Congo, say, is fully covered. In 2012 and 2013, the application of these provisions was being tested in The Hague by both prosecutors and defense attorneys for Gbagbo and other alleged wrongdoers. These several cases brought by the ICC, and earlier trials in The Hague and Arusha before the Yugoslavian and Rwandan panels, presumed that the act of bringing perpetrators of crimes against humanity to justice would ultimately deter others – that the punishment of those who authorized ethnic cleansing or mass atrocity crimes would cause other potential perpetrators to hesitate before they ordered such crimes against innocent civilians within their own countries.

Whether or not this is in fact occurring – whether or not the malevolent mailed fist of tyranny is being stayed – is difficult to determine at this early stage in the life of the ICC. Possibly in a decade there will be sufficient evidence to demonstrate the efficacy of the ICC, and of its prosecutions. Conceivably, too, it will be the fear of being investigated by prosecutorial teams from the ICC that will deter potential abusers of power. In the Kenyan cases, for example, the suspicion that powerful politicians brought about ethnic attacks in 2008 may chill other equally mendacious political actors in Kenya and in similar African countries in 2013. That Gbagbo was hauled away to The Hague may conceivably compel would-be despots (hardly existing ones) to behave more cautiously and less perniciously.  Yet, even if it does, only 139 states have signed the Rome Statute. For non-signatories (like Libya and Zimbabwe), the ICC cannot indict individuals until such time as the UN Security Council, hoping for Chinese and Russian abstentions rather than vetoes, votes to refer a country case to The Hague. The UN Security Council did so in the case of Libya, but has not yet been asked to do so in the case of Zimbabwe.

This question of sovereignty and the presumed right (according to serial abusers) to rule despotically or not within a country stands squarely in the way of justice.  Moreover, even if we choose to believe that indictments, prosecutions, and judgments curb future war crimes, there will never be sufficient investigators, courts, and funds to combat atrocities through the legal system, domestic and international.  Moreover, courts act after the fact. Thus there has long been a need to prevent abuses against civilians by their rulers in real time. World order should have reacted, for example, immediately the first intimations arrived of a possible genocide in Rwanda.[16] When the Mugabe regime permitted its people to starve in their millions from 2003 through 2008, world order responses should have been triggered.[17] When Belarus or Syria shoot protesters in the streets, over and over, or when Bahrain abuses its Shia majority, there should be some means of hindering the perpetuation and the proliferation of such crimes against humanity.[18]

In 2001, a Canadian-sponsored international commission proposed that world order and every nation-state had a “responsibility to protect” its own citizens from grievous harm.[19] The physical and psychological safety of inhabitants of a country were more important than sovereignty, and overcame claims of sovereignty. Indeed, the commission asserted an overriding right of humanitarian intervention. Violence within a state that shocked “the conscience of mankind” should trigger outside military intervention. Certainly large-scale loss of life or large-scale ethnic cleansing provided “just cause” for military intervention.   (“Large-scale” was not defined.)

In 2005, a UN World Summit accepted the R2P norm. Between 2001 and 2005 there had been an avalanche of deaths in Congo and the Sudan (Darfur), thus concentrating the minds of the delegates. The Outcome Document of the Summit obligated world order and individual states to protect groups in harm’s way and, if necessary and despite hitherto sacrosanct borders, to rescue them. The R2P norm of 2005 charged each state with the protection of its citizens. The member states at the Summit further promised to assist populations under stress even before attacks begin. Thus the intent of the Outcome Document could be read as a rejection that sovereignty (as construed since the Congress of Westphalia) shielded leaders and regimes from international concern.[20] But in 2005 the member states did not determine what the UN itself should do.

Nor did they in 2009, when the UN Secretary-General and his special preparatory task force attempted to negotiate an operationalization of the R2P norm. How should the UN, in all of its component parts, be mobilized to protect peoples at risk? That essential question was never answered in precise or implementable terms, the proponents of extending the reach of R2P repeatedly being rebuffed by those defending sovereign immunity. Burma, Cuba, Nicaragua, North Korea, the Sudan, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe led the charge against R2P. Russia and China were not anxious to see any change in existing modalities. The strongest backers of converting R2P from a concept into a norm were a clutch of African nations, including South Africa and Nigeria, most South American countries, the nation-states of the developed world, Jordan, Morocco, and Qatar.[21] But, in 2013, R2P remains an ideal, a set of principles, and an unarticulated premise instead of a norm (unlike the anti-land-mine norm, converted into a treaty) that mandates the protection of civil populations when they are abused by the regimes under which they are governed.

Evans, one of the principal inventors and articulators of R2P, argues that the norm should not be thought of as a remedy for human security issues generally. It is not “about solving all the world’s problems.” Rather it should be applied in those special cases where mass atrocity crimes are “clearly being committed,” where such crimes are “about to be committed,” or where there is a serious risk that such crimes will be committed in the foreseeable future “unless effective preventive action is taken….”[22] Evans and other supporters of R2P indeed prefer a narrow construction of the norm for fear that any broader application would make it incoherent, and its application haphazard.

In fact, R2P provided a justification for outside intervention in Libya; certainly the U. S. National Security Council persuaded Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama that the West and the U. S. was obliged to protect those in Benghazi and eastern Libya who were about to  be smashed by Qaddafi and his followers  in March 2011. Intervention at that moment saved the lives of many insurgents and, by engaging NATO fully on the side of rebels, turned the tide of the war.

Less dramatically but just as powerfully, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan employed the concept of R2P in Kenya in 2008 to intervene morally first to end post-election tit-for-tat killings of ethnic opponents and then to impose a coalition government on those on either side of the ethnic and political divide.  Annan, by stature and experience representing world order, could make R2P work.  So could French troops and UN interposition in Cote d’Ivoire provide physical and diplomatic cover to Ouattara, winner of the 2010 presidential election, and ultimately legitimize the removal of Gbagbo after he refused to give up the presidency. In 2013, France’s forcible intervention against al-Qaeda linked jihadists who had occupied and repressed northern Mali was critical in protecting and liberating indigenous Malians from the depredations of Islamists. In all four cases, there was no Security Council declaration of an R2P emergency. Instead, in keeping with the amorphous and ambiguous normative terrain occupied by R2P, the force of R2P was deployed when and how it could be most influential.[23]

Note, however, that R2P was never enunciated or even eluded to when protesters took to the Tahrir Squares in Tunis and Cairo, when Yemeni soldiers shot protesting students in Sana or Taiz, or when Bahrainis shouted against Emir Hamad bin Issa al Khalifa in Pearl Square.  Nor, as conditions worsened by the day, month after month, did world order consciously accept any compelling obligation under R2P forcibly to stop the killings in Homs, Hama, Aleppo, and other Syrian cities, or even to impose a no-fly zone as they had in Saddam-afflicted Kurdistan.

Clearly world order, the UN system, the G7, the G20, and  regional or sub-regional organizations know what to do.  They all know how to intervene to save lives, but not exactly when, or with what rationale. Sewall argues that “the United States and the international community should proactively respond to the outbreak of widespread civil massacres with military force as well as other tools of national and international power.” She prefers early interference in order to obviate the escalation of state-directed violence against disadvantaged citizens. Acting early is always better than acting late, or not at all, and the costs are far lower. Lives are saved, too.[24]

Current Remedies

Given that Sewall’s doctrine is unlikely ever to be embraced by the United Nations, and only by the EU and the United States in limited and very special circumstances (Libya), populations in failed and collapsed states, in weak states, and certainly in the worst of the globe’s polities will remain at risk. Mugabe wannabes will continue to kill and maim their opponents and subject large numbers to the trials of hunger. Women of the eastern Congo will continue to be raped, forty a day according to one report.[25] Burma’s military will bomb Kachin and Shan ethnic strongholds, the Chinese will harass and imprison Tibetans and Uighurs, and the Uzbekistan will chain its Islamist prisoners ever more tightly. .

World order has still not managed to create consistent tools to curb dictators, to impose civilized methods on primitive and recalcitrant regimes, or to persuade its most odious members to embrace humanity and tread the democratic paths of tolerance and civility. Nor has the UN itself, or most of its members, ever found a voice with which to condemn and shame those who comprise the worst of the worst. Redress will therefore come episodically and painfully primarily from within.







[1] For precise rather than loose definitions of what constitutes a weak, a failed, or a collapsed state, see Robert I. Rotberg, “The Failure and Collapse of Nation-States: Breakdown, Prevention, and Repair,” in Rotberg (ed.), When States Fail: Causes and Consequences (Princeton, 2004), 1-50.

[2] This section, and particularly the check list, draws heavily on Robert I. Rotberg, “Repressive, Aggressive, and Rogue Nation-States: How Odious, How Dangerous?” in Rotberg (ed.), Worst of the Worst: Dealing with Repressive and Rogue Nations (Washington, D. C., 2007), 1-35, 5.

[3] For a discussion of data methods, see ibid, 4-6.

[4] Ibid, 13-34.

[5]  See Marcus Noland, “North Korea: The Tyranny of Deprivation,” in Rotberg, Worst of Worst, 89-93.

[6] See Benedict Rogers, Than Shwe, Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant (Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2010), 95-99; Emma Larkin, Everything is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma (New York, 2010), 119, 130, 160-163.

[7] But see Bertil Lintner, “Realpolitik and the Burmese Spring,”, Nov 30, 2011.

[8] Rotberg, “Repressive, Aggressive,” 25; John Heilbrunn, “Equatorial Guinea and Togo: What Price Repression?” in Rotberg, Worst of the Worst, 222-246.

[9] For details, see Martha Brill Olcott, “Uzbekistan: A Decaying Dictatorship Withdrawn from the West,” in Rotberg, Worst of the Worst,  250-268.

[10] David W. Lesch, “Assessing Repression in Syria,” and Clement Henry, “Tunisia’s ‘Sweet Little’ Regime,” in Rotberg, Worst of the Worst, 269-299, 300-324.

[11] Thom Shanker, “For Syria’s Voice in the U. S., Isolation but not Silence,”  New York Times,  July 29, 2006.

[12] See Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: the Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Ithaca, 2011).

[13] See definitions of governance and detailed statistics in Robert I. Rotberg and Rachel M. Gisselquist, Strengthening African Governance: The Index of African Governance, 2009 (Cambridge, MA, 2009).

[14] See Robert I. Rotberg, “Deterring Mass Atrocity Crimes: The Cause of Our Era,” in Rotberg (ed.),  Mass Atrocity Crimes: Preventing Future Outrages (Washington, D. C., 2010), 1-24.

[15] See Dan Kuwali, “Old Crimes, New Paradigms: Preventing Mass Atrocity Crimes,” in Rotberg,  Mass Atrocity Crimes,  25-54, for definitions. Also Rotberg, “Deterring Mass Atrocity Crimes,” 4, for  the definition of ethnic cleansing.

[16] See Allison J. Des Forges, “Making Noise Effectively: Lessons from the Rwandan Catastrophe,” in Rotberg (ed.), Vigilance and Vengeance: NGOs Preventing Conflict in Divided Societies (Washington, D.C., 1996), 213-234.

[17] Rotberg, “Winning the African Prize for Repression: Zimbabwe,” in Rotberg, Worst of the Worst, 177; Rotberg, Beyond Mugabe: Preparing for Zimbabwe’s Transition  (Washington, D. C., 2011).

[18] See Mamoud Cherif Bassiouni, et al, Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (Manama, 23 November 2011).

[19] The Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, published as The Responsibility to Protect (Ottawa, 2001).  See also Gareth Evans, The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and for All (Washington, D. C., 2008), 38-48.

[20] See Matthew  C. Waxman, Intervention to Stop Genocide and Mass Atrocities (New York, 2009), 10.

[21] Claire Applegarth and Andrew Block, “Acting Against Atrocities: A Strategy for Supporters of R2P,” in Rotberg, Mass Atrocity Crimes, 128-129.

[22] Gareth Evans, “Implementing the Responsibility to Protect: The Need to Build on the 2005 Consensus,” speech at the UN General Assembly, New York City, 23 July 2009, available at

[23] For Kenya, see Daniel Branch, Kenya: Between Hope and Despair, 1963-2011 (New Haven, 2011), 277-284.

[24]  Sarah Sewall, “From Prevention to Response: Using Military Force to Oppose Mass Atrocities,” in Rotberg, Mass Atrocity Crimes, 160.

[25] Amber Peterman, Tia Palermo, and Caryn Bredenkamp,  “Estimates and Determinants of Sexual Violence Against Women in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” American Journal of Public Health, CI (2011), 1060-1067



One thought on “Odious States, Humanitarian Responses

  1. It is a shame that there are no comments. This article is very good and hits the nail on the head. Can’t imagine why there are no comments.

    Posted by Jeff Ferguson | February 2, 2013, 4:14 pm

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