The late UN secretary-general Kofi Annan had a maxim that he often used. He would say that “one cannot have real peace without development; and one cannot have real development without peace; and neither is possible without the full exercise of human rights.”
Looking at the nexus of these three goals, to which all peoples regardless of race or religion aspire, I find that a broad, expansive approach to their definition is most helpful.
We should therefore begin by looking at what economic and social development can do for a population as a whole, especially marginalised groups in society. A good litmus test of the health of a society, and a state, is how it treats its minorities.
The same thing applies to security, where a focus on human security in the sense that the term was first coined by the Japanese in the 1990s to embrace well-being and the meeting of basic human needs is useful. Naturally this includes protection of the population by the state. But the difference is that it is a people-centric, not a state-centric, approach.
How can these general principles be applied today in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, where so many societies and states are being torn apart by armed conflict? The short answer is that even in the middle of protracted conflicts, where the search for lasting peace remains elusive, it is possible – essential even – to make modest progress.
What can be done in practice will, however, depend on the severity of the conflict and the extent to which state authority has broken down. In extreme situations, those affected by conflict are simply left to fend for themselves or are dependent on foreign aid. And that state of dependency often has negative consequences in the short and long-term.
Before prescribing remedies, what we must recognise is that there has been a breakdown of the post-World War II models of international assistance and the normative behaviour of states and societies, especially with respect to International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and those institutions built to protect it, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United Nations.
To paraphrase Antonio Gramsci, the 20th-century Italian leftist, from his Prison Diaries, the old order has died, but the new is not yet born. And it is struggling to emerge in today’s disordered world.
As a retired UN official who served in post-conflict zones in different parts of the world, I have lived through this transition: from the time when the UN’s blue flag and helmets were respected by all and untouchable to today’s near-anarchic age when the UN and the ICRC have become deliberate targets. Many friends and colleagues have died as a result.
Here are some guiding principles for policymakers and decision-makers trying to navigate conflict and chaos.
First, what should NOT be done: do not make things worse. So, be modest and realistic. And prioritise what needs to be done. Next, focus on the essentials: basic healthcare, education, shelter, access to food and water on a non-discriminatory basis. Do not favour one social group over another. To do so will only breed more problems down the road.
The message that basic human rights are not gifts from rulers but are intrinsic to all humans should be widely disseminated. The state should provide basic security and the rule of law; but otherwise it should let people get on with own lives and not interfere.
The problem with conflict economies is that they are highly distorted. It is the profiteers, those with connections or who know how to take advantage of the situation, who benefit. The situations today in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Libya are all good examples.
To improve human security in the midst of protracted conflict, the state has a few tools at its disposal. One is to encourage youth employment, helping to create meaningful jobs and giving people a sense of purpose in life away from the lure of guns and illusions of glory. Helping provide employment for refugees and internally displaced persons is also wise.
The enlightened attitude that Uganda has taken to its several hundred thousand refugees from South Sudan, giving them land and farm tools and allowing them to sell their produce, is a shining example. Jordan and Turkey have followed this policy to some extent; but, like Lebanon, they have high unemployment rates at home and thus need to take care.
Perhaps the best example of what can be done in practice to promote human development to a displaced population is UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Starting life as a temporary agency for 400,000 refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, it has become a reliable fixture in the regional landscape.
We should recall that many of those refugees, professionals who received their education and training in UNRWA institutions and healthcare in UNRWA clinics, became the backbone of the future success of the Arab countries of the Gulf in the 1950s and 1960s.
Seventy years later, UNRWA today looks after 5.2 million people and is unlikely to disappear soon. Despite recent efforts by Israel and the US to have it abolished and redefine who is a Palestinian refugee, the agency’s mandate was renewed last month by the UN General Assembly for another four years.
Despite recurrent threats to the refugees from different quarters, including radical jihadist movements, the agency is thus an essential bulwark against radicalisation and extremism.
UNRWA is unique among international institutions in delivering quasi-governmental services in the absence of a state either willing or able to take the responsibility. What it cannot do, however, is provide security. That is the job of the host country or, under IHL, the occupying power, i.e. Israel in the case of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
In all the areas where UNRWA works – Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon – the refugees have suffered recurrent periods of violence leading to renewed displacement. They also suffer from a pervasive lack of basic security.
The defining narrative of the region today is the “fight against terrorism,” a broad catch-all phrase which is as misleading as it is misguided.
Why did the Islamic State (IS) group attract so much support at its peak? The short answer is that it managed to persuade many people that it stood for the opposite of the states where it emerged: cronyism, inequality, injustice, corruption and discrimination. States – both regional and external – engaged in fighting this phenomenon of radical, cross-border jihadism thus need to consider carefully the root causes behind IS.
Maha Yahya, director of Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, has written about the link between political freedom, development and poverty in the Middle East, observing that “as political freedoms have eroded, so too have the development gains of the past few decades.”
In the same essay, published in the November issue of the US journal Foreign Affairs, she wrote that “for the leaders of Middle East states, economic liberalisation was not intended to promote free markets and free minds. Instead, it was seen as a means to maintain the cohesion and loyalty of the regime’s elites.”
These are undeniable truths from which lessons can be learned.
*The writer is former senior UN official.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.