On occasion of a few other articles I have also mentioned that this is not only academic writing, but that my own processing of personal trauma is entangled with this process. It is a source of personal experience, a source of strong personal motivation, but also a source of profoundly subjective views. Objective viewpoints, entirely separating the observer from the observed, they are impossible, not only in quantum mechanics. From quantum physics we know that in literally no aspect of examining and explaining the world the observer can be separated from the observed. In human sciences we know this, of course, too. The knowledge about this fact is forcing me to always step back and critically examine my own attempts to come up with the best shot at how I try to make sense of this world.
One morning end of January 2022 I woke up after a good nights sleep. I managed to keep my busy thoughts silent during the first minutes, enjoying my morning routine of making the first coffee, feeding my cat, and beginning my day with a little mindfulness exercise. It worked pretty well, I began my day in calmness.
After which I went into my morning routine of reading the news, over my second coffee. This story showed up on my screen: “DR Congo court sentences 51 in trial over 2017 murder of UN experts“, from the French news agency France24. A few minutes later, my balanced approach towards the day, a Sunday morning, was over. I had to sit down and to understand why I was feeling complex emotions, and a strong nausea in my stomach. Over the years I have learned to better understand these signs of a traumatic reaction. In such a situation I try to sit still and to embrace this reaction in a gentle way, instead of mentally running away from it.
There are reasons why I reacted so strongly. I am connected to this story. I was involved in attempts from United Nations Headquarters’ in New York to deal with this horrific murder. I had privileged sight on videos taken by some of the perpetrators, documenting the last minutes and seconds before and when these U.N. experts were killed. I was involved in efforts investigating this situation, and such involvement happened on so many other awful occasions before in my line of work: My more than two decades of international work include a huge amount of personal trauma I have happily piled up. I do know that this leads to a mechanism called re-enactment. I am re-enacting my own previous trauma. My work on this since many years has given me tools with which I can mitigate the effects.
I remember those days in 2017 with all diplomatic efforts on highest levels conveying the message that we, the international community of humanitarians, peacekeepers, diplomats, expected justice being served. I remember my boss of that time, a United Nations Undersecretary General, reporting to us after he returned from a field visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo. He had left the message with Congolese politicians that “this will not go away easily”, that it requires a sustained effort to bring the perpetrators to justice.
I also remember that I assessed the chances for justice being served under extraordinary circumstances as being slim. I contributed to our efforts assisting investigative authorities, sending own forensic experts working in my Division, helping Congolese investigators and prosecutors. Over time, hopes of seeing this crime being solved and perpetrators being sentenced, it faded. Until I saw this story, end of January 2022, give or take five years after the brutal murder act.
02 May 2022, I am working on a set of texts which I will partially or entirely publish here, depending on whether the statements in these texts have a connection to my general theme of this blog (see above). In this context, I am working on explaining why, in my experience, there is literally no memory of any situation I have been in which does not have links to the emotions I felt at the time of the event. One hypothesis I am following in this context is that these emotions can de-link from the events which caused them. As “emotional memories” with no connection to an event causing them, they “linger around”, come up when triggered, influencing my emotional and cognitive setup. This, I suspect, is especially true in situations when I am exposed to what we call “trauma”.
Which would explain the feeling of grave nausea when I read the article about Congolese authorities sentencing 51 individuals connected to that murder which I, like many other events in my professional career, can not forget.
My next blog article will include thoughts on the inseparability of emotions and perceptions, communication, and memory. It will be pretty methodical, I hope I can make that one an interesting read.
In this view, this draft article which I found unfinished when opening my WordPress editor, it is a teaser on more general observations to come.
But I’m ending here by stating that justice can be served, and like here, it may contribute to my healing. As a matter of fact, it does. I must continue to believe in this, and whilst I have no sight on how professional the investigation and application of the legal process by Congolese authorities has been, or whether there was negligence, faultiness, or willful instrumentalisation of legal due process, I must believe that justice is possible as a concept, and as a part of reality, and that hopefully the real perpetrators have been sentenced.
There are new atrocities happening in 2022. As happened all those years in between, whether in Myanmar, Afghanistan, now the Ukraine, in so many places in the Middle East and Africa, and elsewhere. I must continue to believe in the possibility of individual and collective justice, otherwise there are only new wounds, but no healing, and no scars.
Some have suggested that we woke up in a new world February 24, 2022, when Russia began its invasion into Ukraine. Not the first time that I heard that, and by far not limited to September 11, 2001.
Some have suggested that we will forever remember where we were when the news about the Russian war machine attacking the Ukraine broke. Not the first time I heard sentences like these either, and beyond September 11, 2001 there are quite a few terrible events which will ever stay connected to memories where I was at that specific moment in time.
Of course, there is symbolism in sentences like these. There are strong emotions connected to them. But did we really wake up in something entirely new, entirely surprising, after Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation oversaw the reckless and brutal invasion of a sovereign State? After yet another rambling speech filled with alleged historical grief, fake justifications, malicious lies, and mind-blowing threats against all those who would stand in his way, including reminding us all of military nuclear capabilities at his command?
Fear, anger, rage and resentment, the feeling of being powerless need to be processed. When such feelings are affecting decision-making, results can be catastrophic. But which frameworks guide us? Science? Religion? Value-based secular concepts including human rights, the rule of law, democratic values? Pragmatism and the power of economics, and capitalism? The pure selfishness of autocracies, xenophobia, chauvinism, fascism? The conflicts surfacing over the past years are happening within a context of chaotic competition and fierce fight between these frameworks, some of which are conceptual, some of which are pure expressions of the wish to rule and to dominate. From that vantage point, the war against the Ukraine has not marked a waking-up in a new world. It is a new element in a line of events which we can see unfolding over the past many years.
In reality, the war in the Ukraine marks another severe attack against existing value systems which we got used to, and often took for granted, since the end of World War II. We seem to live in a cauldron with boiling ingredients. Little we know what will dissolve, and what will emerge, or whether the whole thing explodes.
Today, April 18, some of us celebrate Easter Monday. Others will celebrate Easter a little later. Other’s won’t at all, observing different symbolic events within the systems of belief and faith which they are connected to. I have read articles where authors argued why globalisation is coming to an end, and I have read articles reasoning the opposite. Which common perspective can we give to our children, holding true for all of us, notwithstanding our faith, or being agnostics, notwithstanding our cultural and historical affiliations?
Over the course of the past weeks much happened. The war against the Ukraine turned into a horror story of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and bottomless individual suffering. The world is in shock, witnessing human suffering and atrocities which European soil has not seen in decades.
By the way, Europe hasnt’ seen this, other parts of the world have seen a lot of it. Just saying, with my light-blue United Nations’ beret on.
Newsfeeds are still filled with the pandemic, but since a little while I notice that those plastic shields disappeared from counters in my grocery store, that bus lines carry people increasingly not wearing a mask, subtly making those who still do a minority.
Between February 28 and today, I traveled to Bucharest in Romania from Belgrade in Serbia, flew to Toronto in Canada, returned to Bucharest and Belgrade, traveled to Bavaria in Germany and from there to Sarajewo in Bosnia&Herzegovina. After a few days in Belgrade again, I am now celebrating the spring weather during an extended weekend in my campervan in East Croatia. With the ubiquitous Internet, I can do my work from everywhere. With my bank card I can pay for my groceries anywhere without the need of physical local currency. My digital equipment allows me to be in constant contact with those in my life who I love. A highly sophisticated set of two state-of-the-art batteries allows me to be entirely autonomous, “off-grid”. My solar panels on the roof refill the batteries after a few hours of daylight. Meanwhile, all along this journey, a set of highly calibrated vaccine shots kept Covid-19 at bay, being the result of incredible bio-science. In due course of almost two weeks, daily rapid-tests, offered for free in Bavaria, allowed me to visit my father in the hospital without endangering him, or others. Just an effort of fifteen minutes, a printed result, no significant effort at all. High-tech breathing masks did their magic, too.
Literally every aspect of my life benefits from cutting edge science, including quantum physics driving my batteries, solar panels, computer equipment, smartphones. The practical application of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity allows me to use a global system of satellites and to punch the coordinates of the grocery store in Vukovar, Croatia, into Google Maps and to start my trip from Belgrade without even one single worry. The extent to which this almost incomprehensible science drives literally every aspect of our lifes today, it is mindblowing.
The same science is being used in precision-bombs, missile-defence systems, in conventional and nuclear components of warfare. It is being used within an information warfare for misinformation and spreading lies. In extremis, people who believe the world is flat and populated by a bunch of necrophiles and child molestors keeping us in captivity, people who attack science as a means of subjugation, they use smartphones for spreading this ugly mess.
Natural science like physics, chemistry, mathematics appears to be limited to being a tool being capable to help us in finding answers how we shape the present and the future of our world from an ethical, or moral imperative.
I don’t want to ramble about religion, out of a deep respect in that people believe in their faiths. But if religion is being used for praying for my soldiers, keeping them out of harms way and victorious, if prayers are being used to ask for the enemy being destroyed, isn’t that just an extension of Janis Joplin’s song “Dear God, please buy me a Mercedes Benz”? Crimes against humanity have been/are being committed under the flag of all great and minor religions that ever existed in this world. What does this mean for the billions of human beings who seek moral and ethical guidance in their daily lifes? Religion, claiming to have universal and eternal answers for fundamentals of why we are, and why we are here, is unable to provide those answers, like science is unable to. But religion always was a powerful tool for societal control. Where does this leave me in this cauldron?
When I began writing this blog entry, I was driven by questions which I had after I finished reading the book “Six Impossible Things – The Mystery Of The Quantum World” by John Gribbin (eBook, you can look it up under https://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewBook?id=1521733116 ). Since roughly a hundred years now, we are using highly precise mathematics of quantum physics without which none of the technological or pharmaceutical or other medical achievements would be possible. But the book is one of those which take me on a rollercoaster of entirely incomprehensible phenomena of nature on its smallest scale. John Gribbin attempts to describe the six major attempts to come to terms with why nature is producing these results. But until now, we only know how to calculate the math, but we have no idea why everything is, as it is.
That’s when I began to think about what a book like this one means to somebody who has never had an interest in understanding the quantum and the cosmological scale of the world. I am torturing my fascinated brain with this since I have been a young boy. But, meaning no disrespect, most people I am meeting would simply shut down after attempting to read one page of this book. Yet, they will use smartphones for spreading their beliefs why the world is as it is, including being highly critical to science itself. There are great pieces of Science Fiction attempting to describe this contradiction, most recently I watched examples of this in “The Foundation” series on Apple+.
But ultimately, I am sitting here on an Easter Monday morning, confronted with the eternal question how all this makes sense in a world which, despite of all technological achievements, and despite a track record of 3.500 years of humanity finding peaceful answers to life questions, we still kill each other, rape each other, hate each other, dominate each other, subjugate each other, control each other.
So, this blog piece is ending with an answer solely applicable to me: My own actions and decisions matter, and there is no way how I can think of making my decisions and actions contingent on those of others. The childish blamegame “But the others have begun”, that argument which I used when my parents scolded me for a fight with my brothers, I have seen it to a ridiculous extent including by former U.S. President Nr 45, by autocrats, and other pied pipers.
Think. Act responsible. Feel compassion. Start with yourself.
The English version of the online edition of the German newspaper DER SPIEGEL today issued a comprehensive article on an investigation of the European Union’s anti-corruption agency OLAF, related to decisions and behavior of four senior managers of the EU’s Border agency FRONTEX. It appears that strong evidence -partly revealed in the article including through disturbing pictures- exists about inaction of FRONTEX, even alleged efforts to cover up illegal push-back activities of national border/coast guards of a Member State of the EU, violating international and EU law, forcing migrants and asylum seekers back into a non EU country, depriving them from their right to claim asylum and to subject themselves to due and legal scrutiny whether it can be granted, or not.
The article is a very good read, in terms of quality, and it is a very disturbing article, within a longer row of similar reporting in international media since long. But now, with the Head of OLAF presenting the findings to lawmakers in Brussels, the findings appear to be complete, and action on the findings need to be considered. This, of course, is a thorough technical process, whilst being profoundly political at the same time.
I do believe this matter needs to be taken forward not only with all due diligence, as thorough and unbiased as possible, and as fast as possible. Most importantly, I believe this process requires utmost transparency and dedication to holding individuals and agencies, whether national or international, publicly accountable.
Why? Not only because this should be good practice in democracies and nations adhering to the rule of law anyway. But also because otherwise we may add to a bad taste: The push-backs are alleged to have happened at the EU’s southern/southeastern border to the mediterranian sea. Persons attempting to reach the EU from there come from many countries and conflict zones, whether in Africa or in Asia, including Afghanistan.
At the same time of this reporting, the EU and her Member States undertake a terrific effort, to be praised and applauded in the highest terms possible, to welcome, host, cater for, and assist refugees from the Ukraine. Public opinion across the board is overwhelmingly supporting these refugees from the Ukraine, who have gone through nightmares, in the middle of Europe.
I have, looking into the many comments on social media, also noticed that sometimes there is an expression of fear that we all too easily forget those uncounted individuals who seek help in so many conflict zones a bit farther away, such as in Afghanistan, or in African countries.
I believe we have a chance here to rise to the opportunity and value the fundamental rights of refugees notwithstanding their origin, avoiding adding fuel to a claimed impression, whether true or not, that we care more about some than about others. Putting the alleged FRONTEX actions under public scrutiny, not sparing any effort to demonstrate this in all openness, will in my view be beneficial to make a public stand demonstrating how high we hold the universality of affected fundamental human rights of refugees, and persons who try to relocate or migrate for other reasons than fear from suppression, harm, and death.
Pushing them back, whether it is about cases like this one, or cases of alleged push-backs including brutalisation of migrants attempting to cross land borders into the EU, this is something we shall have zero-tolerance for.
I finished my reading of the book “How Civil Wars Start And How To Stop Them”, written by Barbara F. Walter (Crown, 2022, Ebook ISBN 9780593137796). I wrote about it in my article “Anocracies – And Thoughts on International Efforts Related to Conflict Prevention“. There I said that I was impressed with the detailed historical account on the many civil wars, and what political science learned about their predictability. I also said that I will comment less on the second part of the book, where the author is applying those experiences on the current state of affairs in the United States of America. But here is a brief personal impression:
Purely from an emotional perspective, the first part of the book felt gripping, the second part felt like something was missing. Because the first part tells the story of not only why things went haywire, but also how they went haywire. The first part of the book talks about catastrophies that happened. Because the current situation in the U.S. is troubling, and partly deeply concerning, but has NOT led to a worst case scenario (yet?), the book is speculative in this regard, because, simply, it has to.
The author attempts to come up with a future scenario of how a descent into civil war in the U.S. could look like. When I read it, it felt incomplete. It had to. I believe the scenario had to necessarily stay away from including a potential role of individual actors which brought us to the brink of that abyss. Otherwise the book would have become speculative and politically antagonizing. The role of “Number 45” is being described in how the U.S. witnessed it’s downgrading from a starling democracy into the field of anocracies. But the book’s scenario on possible further descent stays away from involving contemporary individual actors. An that is why the scenario feels hypothetical. The absence of this link allows for concluding that we are, perhaps, far away from seeing one of the most stable democracies of the world itching closer to internal chaos. Which we are not, as I believe.
Here are two recent news articles which may make you better understand where my concerns are, still allowing me to stay out of the same trap. Make your own conclusions on whether the future may bring us closer to worst-case, just by reading and thinking about this one, and this one. We are a far cry away from being out of trouble. The mid-term elections in the U.S. are coming up, I feel we are in for a very bumpy 2022. From a European perspective, the current stabilisation of transatlantic jointness is extremely fragile, depending on future development.
At one point I was wondering what would happen if a future presidential candidate would claim his right for using Twitter back. It feels like “You’re damned if he is allowed, and you’re damned if he is not”. The claim of the far-right that it is fighting a corrupt, even pedophile global cabale, including depicting the free press as the enemy of the people, it will see a new and even more intense replication: The next round of racism, xenophobia, white supremacy, male domination, conspiracy theories challenging the efforts to fight the pandemic, and global warming, attempting to establish a narrative fighting Western democracies, it is just coming up. And the use of social media will be pivotal for those who attack, and those who defend.
The jury is out how this unfolds. And then there is the nutshell of Barbara F. Walter’s point how a fragile and unstable further descent into becoming an anocracy can be turned around. Here, the author refers to a piece of work she was commissioned with in 2014, for the World Bank. Like other scholars, the author found three factors standing out by far as being critical for preventing descent into conflict and chaos, including civil war: (1) The Rule of Law; (2) Voice and Accountability; (3) Government effectiveness. So, we will have to think about how we translate these fundamentals into concrete action allowing people all over the world to trust the form of governance which we say is the best of all alternatives we have been able to come up with so far.
So, here we are again. It is why any effort getting us collectively out of the currently very troubled waters must look at the rule of law, which Walter describes as “the equal and impartial application of legal procedure”. I stick to the definition of the rule of law as adopted by the United Nations: “For the United Nations (UN) system, the rule of law is a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards. It requires measures to ensure adherence to the principles of supremacy of the law, equality before the law, accountability to the law, fairness in the application of the law, separation of powers, participation in decision-making, legal certainty, avoidance of arbitrariness, and procedural and legal transparency.“
However, my experience entails that in order to establish any rule of law, there needs to be a large consent of the respective society in how this principle is applied, and this consent must go beyond any larger factionalisation in that society. Any large faction of a society must accept this larger principle, rather than challenging the application of a rule of law as being biased, being imposed on them by other factions. Those who stir conflict for advancing their own objectives, they always will establish a narrative that there is no justice for their constituency. They will portray the rule of law as being a weapon wielded by their enemies against them. What these individuals do is to undermine the trust of their followers in a rule of law applied to their society as a whole. Which points to a second invisible feature of any successful establishing a rule of law: Trust.
It is about trust accepting the specific rule of law, for myself, and others, for the powerful and the less powerful. And it is about trusting that justice will always attempt to prevail, no matter how long it takes. Because very often, it can take a long time. And still, after many years, cases may be unresolved, often are. A society at large must trust the course which justice takes, even if individual members experience pain because their grievances are open and festering wounds for many years, before closure is possible, or sometimes even never.
For me, this challenge can be seen nowhere else with all clarity than in situations where I contributed to the efforts to re-establish a rule of law in a society where it had broken down. May be I will write more about a few of those experiences. Here it would be too long, because I want to finally focus again on the critical role of social media. Here is just one example:
There were two main ethnic factions in Kosovo before and after the violence ending in 1999. Under the UN Security Council Resolution 1244 Kosovo found herself with a majority and a minority faction, no form of own governance at all, and no rule of law beyond what UNSCR 1244 tasked us with. The Old had broken down and had to disengage. The New was not there. It was to be established, and being part of the international community engaging in assisting in finding a new New, I was representing the international interim police.
Whilst, on a technical level of developing policing, and helping a new Kosovo Police to emerge, being more and more successful, we found ourselves in a classical “Catch-22-situation”: All factions involved were blaming us not being able to provide security, and justice. Each side would accuse us to act on the interest of the other side’s agenda. And practically it meant that in case of any evidence of a severe crime which would allow us to make arrests, and prosecute suspects of grievious crime, there would not be a societal consent, or trust beyond factions. At least at the beginning. During those early years, any action by us leading to an arrest would be perceived by one faction as a biased, if not politically motivated, action in favor of the other faction. I have many examples for both factions.
I believe that, over time, some trust could be instilled. Not only that the Kosovan society at large moved forward towards healing from own wounds. Not only that our persistent sticking to a common rule of law for All slowly helped in setting some foundations for trust. Not only that the real success story is the work on the credibility of the Kosovo Police itself, establishing itself as a trusted actor within an emerging rule of law. But any development until today also shows how fragile this trust is. Including in recent times, operational situations can demonstrate how quickly old tensions, mistrust, and biased interpretation of events can break up. But what I want to demonstrate here is exactly that: That any rule of law is critical for peace&security in a society, and that this does go way beyond the technical application of such a principle.
It requires acceptance of that rule of law by a majority of all constituencies in a society, and it requires a sound trust in the equal application and adjucation of that rule of law, beyond personal grievances, and existing factions.
As said earlier (in my first blog article on this book), this holds true both for a society moving towards a rule of law, and it applies to a society where the efforts of trusting a rule of law are heavily undermined by the spreading of misinformation and fake news. Whether the society moves into a positive direction or a negative direction, it is the middle zone between the Old and the New which makes the situation most volatile.
All three factors mentioned by Barbara F. Walter, (1) The Rule of Law; (2) Voice and Accountability; (3) Government effectiveness played into any descent into chaos I have personally witnessed.
In 2022, the means to disrupt by using manipulative voice and amplifying non-accountability are a global challenge: Social media has become a bull-horn for those who know how to exploit fragility, and to further it.
So, how to translate Barbara F. Walter’s message, that civil wars can be avoided, into practice?
By taking responsibility for own action, and making our voices of reason being heard, day by day. Neil Young requested from Spotify to remove his music from the platform because Spotify is hosting “The Joe Rogan Experience”. Neil Young did not want to be on a platform which prominently features a protagonist for this type of spreading misinformation, lies, and manipulation, including wildest conspiracy theories about some mass-hypnosis being used by a global cabale enslaving citizens. Joni Mitchell followed suit, and she is not the only one.
This fight is taking us on a long haul, it is far from being over. Every personal contribution matters.
Anocracy or semi-democracy is, according to Wikipedia, a “form of government that is loosely defined as part democracy and part dictatorship, or as a “regime that mixes democratic with autocratic features.” Another definition classifies anocracy as “a regime that permits some means of participation through opposition group behavior but that has incomplete development of mechanisms to redress grievances.” The term “semi-democratic” is reserved for stable regimes that combine democratic and authoritarian elements. Scholars have also distinguished anocracies from autocracies and democracies in their capability to maintain authority, political dynamics, and policy agendas. Similarly, the regimes have democratic institutions that allow for nominal amounts of competition.Such regimes are particularly susceptible to outbreaks of armed conflict and unexpected or adverse changes in leadership.”
In my blog post “Under The Hood” I wrote that I had pre-ordered “How Civil Wars Start And How To Stop Them”, written by Barbara F. Walter (Crown, 2022, Ebook ISBN 9780593137796). After its publication date it got delivered (in my case as an Apple iBook). I am reading it now, and it is as good as it was assessed in that New York Times book recension. As it was said in that recension, Barbara F. Walter spends much of the first half of the book on a profound history of nearly every civil war haunting mankind in the past many decades before beginning to apply the results of academic research of political scientists on civil wars to the situation of the United States of America.
I am through the first half of the book, and inasmuch as I am now keenly reading her account of the more recent developments in the U.S., I am not intending to write on that subject matter. I have an opinion there, and I share the author’s risk assessment, but this public discourse is already ongoing in the U.S.: Look here and here.
I wanted to reflect on a few general observations that stem from the book’s solid comparative approach of recent situations which led to wide-spread violence, and the solid and vast description of the state of affairs of a number of contemporary nation states. After all, no country is exempted from the danger of plunging into wide-spread violence, just pretending “It can’t happen to us” is nothing less than dangerous denial and wishful thinking of the ostrich burying her head in the sand. In this, Barbara F. Walter’s book establishes itself in the same rational and academic realm as the books “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism” by Anne Applebaum and “Fascism: A Warning” by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
My line of work has frequently put me into situations where we have wondered how one can measure the risk of a country or constituency descending into violent forms of conflict, including civil war. On several occasions I have been part of the international community’s peacekeeping efforts following the outbreak and the aftermath of civil war. Operationally and strategically I was part of such efforts in Kosovo under the United Nations’ mandate through Security Council Resolution 1244. Strategically I was part of such efforts in situations such as in Sudan, South Sudan, Mali, the Central African Republic, Somalia, and several more.
Then there is peacebuilding: How to make sure that a successful peacekeeping engagement finds its continuation through peacebuilding, and leads to a stable peaceful environment that will not relapse into conflict? That’s one of the elements of my current line of work, or why I was operationally working in Bosnia&Hercegovina, or strategically in headquarters of UN and EU on a large number of similar situations in greater Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and the Carribean.
Finally, there is conflict prevention: I often sat in meetings with like-minded peacekeepers and peacebuilders where we dealt with conflict prevention. Meaning to extinguish the fire when it was starting small, or even better: To help keeping things stable long before they reach critical mass of instability, and to find ways helping a country, or a constituency, in efforts to resolve disputes peacefully, and to succeed in that. Here I will not give examples. There were a number of cases in which I participated and where we could help in de-confliction of interests, and peaceful resolving of grievances. Those cases did not lead to bad-news-stories, in the general public they went almost entirely unrecognized, and good-news-stories sometimes can not be told in order to keep the good news continuing.
Those stories also don’t sell. Even in the “normal” world of crime, crime prevention does not attract the same interest by readers as the gruesome murder story does. Prevention is the silent humble sister of the guys and gals in military and police fatigues. Repression, threat, coercion, and the use of force, all too often these stories outrun any peaceful piece of news. This is the achilles-heel of prevention, and exponentially more so since the advent of social-media, whose algorithms prefer stories, fake or true, that create viral attention: Stories that create anger will always knock out the stories of crime that never happened. Even cute-cats-stories outrun every story about a conflict which never happened because we all did the right things.
In all those discussions on how to prevent conflict better, we asked ourselves how to asses and to measure the risk of conflict with hard numbered indicators. I remember reading the book “The Responsibility To Protect” by Gareth Evans. Evans, one of the chief architects of a concept called R2P, which tragically failed, at one point mentions the many efforts of academia to come up with a measurable set of indicators. He stated that for many years there was inconclusive academic research on that. In his book he mentioned that only one hard statistical fact could be boiled down: That conflict is much more likely in a country where there was one -more recently- before.
For years, I accepted that. Barbara F. Walter’s book has profoundly changed this view. May be I did personally not notice, or may be it is more of a late-breaking recognition, but according to Walter political science has made tremendous progress and has developed a sophisticated set of predictors, or risk indicators, based on sound bodies of empirical data in at least three very large and internationally recognized data-sets. In order to keep this a relatively easy read, I won’t go into details. The book is very captivating and it is very comprehensible. I truly enjoy the way how hard science is transformed into popular language by Barbara F. Walter. There is no need to undergo a 101 course in political sciences, so instead of summarizing a detailed book, I recommend reading it yourself.
Walter’s book has drawn my attention to three factors that increase the potential for, and are the reasons for, civil wars. Academic research appears to have managed to put these three factors into a rock-hard framework of statistical measurability: (1) Transitions from one system of governance to another system of governance; (2) Factionalisation in societies; (3) The drastic effects of social media.
(1) Transitions from one system of governance to another system of governance
For me, one important contribution of Barbara F. Walter’s book sits with drawing attention to process, rather than a snapshot of a state of affairs in time. Any form of governance can be categorized, and put on a scale. A true representation of all common criteria for a democracy can put a State into a category of “best in class”. Another State can be a full representation of what we call an autocracy. That State would be on the opposite side of that scale. From the viewpoint of a true defender of democratic values, that would bring this State into the zone of “worst in class”. Of course, “the other side of the aisle” would disagree with that judgement, and there we are in a polarized discussion.
But the true focus of Barbara F. Walter is not on the snapshot where a State finds herself on such a scale. It is about the movement from one end to the other, in both directions, and it is about the speed of that process. A State can find herself on the path towards more autocratic forms of government, or on the path from autocratic governance towards democratic governance. Political science has established evidence for that the “middle zone” between one form of governance and another form of governance is the most dangerous and volatile area, and the faster the transitional process from democracy towards autocracy, or from autocracy to democracy, the more risk for wide-spread violence exists on a statistical level.
And this makes perfect sense. Here is my attempt to visualize it:
It means that the “door swings in both directions”: The risk of violence does not only exist in a situation where a country is slipping towards semi-autocratic or fully-autocratic forms of governance. The same risk exists in a situation where interested parties, supported by the international community for example, engage in promoting and establishing regime change towards democracy. Barbara F. Walter makes it clear that the risk for violence is highest when this process into either direction has placed the constituency in question into the middle zone, when transformational change is most unfinished, with the old being ripped down and the new not yet formed and rooted.
Secondly, science tells us that, again, the risk is quantifiably higher if the process of transformation is either too slow or too fast, for which there can be many reasons. From how I look at things from my own experience, it is scientific evidence for what happens when the international community pushes too fast, is compartmentalised in such efforts, displays not enough comprehensive depth in supporting transformational change, nor patience for a long-term coherent support approach based on vision and strategy. Which I often saw when international mandates and policy discussions were held unter terms such as “democratization”, or “state building”.
(2) Factionalisation in societies
The second aspect in Barbara F. Walter’s book is a comprehensive analysis of previous civil wars and the relation between constituencies moving into the “danger zone” of being an anocracy, and the existence of factions in these societies. Also here, the book is very comprehensive in giving a detailed account for a vast array of previous civil wars. In my reading this book, one aspect stood out: Any change of one system through which a state applies governance to citizens towards another set of governance rules inevitably leads to the demise of old elites and the struggle which is happening when new elites try to form, and old elites fight to participate in societal control, for their benefits. This is the second factor which makes the “danger zone” so volatile, and the book provides detailed analytical results to the question when, how, and why this leads to violence. I want to highlight one sentence:
“Remember, it’s not the desperately poor who start civil wars, but those who once had privilege and feel they are losing status they feel is rightfully theirs”.
Likewise I quote her account on a declassified CIA report from 2012: “Most insurgencies, the report notes, “pass through similar stages of development during their life cycle.” In the pre-insurgency phase, a group begins to identify a set of common grievances and build a collective identity around a gripping narrative—the story or myth that helps them rally supporters and justify their actions. They begin to recruit members, some of whom even travel abroad for training. They begin to stockpile arms and supplies.”
I note that it is the last sentence which connects my current line of work with the larger picture.
Then Barbara F. Walter goes on to analyze the role of social media in contemporary conflicts:
(3) The drastic effects of social media
Social media acts like the proverbial gasoline poured on a fire. By now, many of us have begun to appreciate this very dark side of a technology which also has contributed so much to bringing us close together in a global world. The author’s account on how social media has been, and continues to be, systematically exploited by those who seek control, including by inciting violence, is nothing short of scathing criticism. Again, the book is unbiased by taking a very comprehensive view on situations of recent violence, and contemporary situations in countries all around the globe, within something which appears to be a rising global pattern of instability, emerging and brooding conflict. She refers to solid data that would allow to conclude that there is a clear connection between the exponential rise of volatile situations and war on one hand, and the the abuse of social media for that purpose on the other hand. It is here where the role of social media and its systematic and professional exploitation by reckless individuals and groups is pervasive. Whereas encouraging factionalism on religious, ethnic, racial, or any grounds has been the key defining modus operandi of individuals manipulating populations into fear and hate of the other, and the acceptance that “Dear Leader” may be the lesser evil, contemporary situations are characterised by a systematic manipulation of many, through some, using social media. The book demonstrates this in Myanmar, in countries in Europe including Eastern and Central Europe, and elsewhere, before even beginning to analyse what happened in the U.S. in recent years.
Our societies struggle with the question of how to apply accountability and regulative frameworks to this new phenomenon. Because, new it is: The effects of how social media can be used for manipulation, inciting hatred, and fueling violence, they may be just ten years old. But they are extremely transformative. And again, we see different approaches in relation to how to control social media in China or Russia, say compared to how open societies handle this challenge. But what we also see: Aspiring autocrats virtuously use social media to gain control. After that, these individuals will undertake everything to control the instrument they have used.
Because, they know better than anyone else how it can be used to their advantage, and against them.
This got long again. I leave it without conclusions, simply because there are so many. This is true for a paradigm change on how we consider engaging in conflict prevention in a world filled with old instruments of international order which require overhaul, or may be outdated if we don’t succeed in transforming them into effective tools. This is also true for how we accept our being affected by what we call “social media”. Personally, I feel this question may belong to the most important ones in our lifetime, in all aspects of our lives.
At the time of this writing (August 24, 2021), its been 11 days ago that I published my first thoughts on the catastrophic events unfolding in Afghanistan, and the shockwaves within the International Community beginning to grasp the extent of our collective failure. At that time, the Taleban stood at the gates of Kabul. Two days later, then Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled Kabul and his country, reportedly with a lot of money, according to this report, 169 million USD in cash. Following the implosion of the government, Taleban fighters and Taleban political representatives were in Kabul in no time. Afghanistan fell, may be except a little pocket, the Panjshir Valley, which appears to be under Taleban siege for now. No need to recollect the events that followed that implosion and collective failure of the International Community, and the Afghan Government. They will haunt us for years to come. Today, the G7 are convening a virtual meeting, called in by the current G7 chair, the United Kingdom. Much, if not all, will be about pressing the U.S. President into extending the deadline for the presence of U.S. troops at Kabul International Airport. Germany participates in a frantic multinational evacuation mission for own citizens and Afghan individuals being at imminent threat for life and limb. Two days ago, Al Jazeera estimated the total number of evacuated people being roughly 28.000, “tens of thousands more [are] still waiting“.
The breadth of discussions on all channels in relation to what went wrong is overwhelming in the West. The depth of these discussions varies. Like many of my friends, I am glued to these news. I belong to those who do not appreciate too much those discussions and statements that are varying mixtures of a broad bunch of mostly backward looking reflections, struggling to find simple answers, palatable for the digestion by the wider and less informed general public, addressing an intractable complexity which festered into twenty years of incoherence of international efforts. Strategic incoherence, because of political incoherence. There is no way to implement coherence if there is a lack of it at the top. Politicians trying to giving meaning in hindsight, overlooking the rubbles of an endeavor which lost its inner compass for a million of reasons. Of course many of these statements come with the unfailing appreciation for the services and sacrifices of soldiers, and humanitarian workers. Sometimes I notice that the police officers who were in this seem to be mentioned as well. But the rear-mirror-view needs to be put aside. Because of this sheer complexity, finding meaningful answers may need so much time that their use for the immediate and mid-term future is very limited.
I have begun to filter my input by looking for honesty in statements, hoping for more humility, wanting to see more apologies, and less self-reflection on national reasons why we were all in this. Because, we all are in this. For many reasons, I like this interview by my “boss”, the German Minister for Foreign Affairs, because I am desperate for any sense of humility combined with visionary forward-looking statements, messages that give us a sense of hope that we will find a way forward, beyond rescuing as many as we can, shivering in relation to how those feel who will, almost inevitably, be left behind.
I began to write this article to get my personal context connecting me to the cause of the Afghan people out of the way. I wanted to explain briefly that I am not just a “concerned citizen”, but that, and how, I have been involved in everything since 2001, since the very beginning. Writing the above, I realised that my reflex simply was to add even more noise to the Rear-Mirror-View. So I’m not doing this.
In my line of actual work I have begun to analyse those implications coming from the catastrophic events which I can see, or anticipate, right now. The discussions which I had about it since a few days, they relate to the consequences of, again, an implosion of security, law and order, an implosion of governance, and all our experiences we have made with how crime, transnational organized crime, violent extremism and international terrorism thrive under conditions like these. We, or I, have seen this so often. At the same time, these discussions made clear that even this segment (crime&security) is only a small element of all possible implications of something which seems to be a catastrophic event, but by no means is a local event. The situation has uncounted interdependencies to other factors in our globalised world which contribute to further instability, and further failure.
That’s why I argue that we need to find vision, energy, compassion, strength, and humility for an urgent brainstorming which would advise us on what we can do, beyond rescue operations, inside Afghanistan, inside the Region, and in all kinds of regional neigborhoods, including Europe, and the European Union.
Fast, please. And together, please. Let us stop talking about “us” and “them”. This is not about the West. This is about us. All of us.
Like so many in my community, I feel an overwhelming helplessness in light of what is happening in Afghanistan during the recent months, weeks, and days. I am witnessing long and painful discussions about what one can do, in light of the sheer force with which the Taleban are overrunning cities, provinces, and are closing in on Kabul. The speed with which this is happening is scary.
Often these discussions are based on a solid layer of angry rambling about the rapidity of military withdrawal from Afghanistan, which has had immediate consequences for other, civilian, assistance which the international community has engaged in for almost twenty years now. Like, when the German military announced its withdrawal, being left with no other option in light of the U.S. decision and the subsequent trickling down into NATO deployments, it was a matter of weeks until end of April 2021 that the German bilateral assistance to capacity building for the Afghan policing services ended, after almost twenty years. Nothing was left behind.
Of course, and rightly so, there were pledges for continuing assistance to Afghan partners on the civilian, including policing, side. But then the conquering of more and more territory and cities by the Taleban happened at a speed which, according to media sources, took even military and intelligence planners by surprise. Now we are, within days, in a scenario where we read and hear about contingency plans on the side of diplomatic representations, reducing their staff to the minimum necessary core. We hear about U.S. negotiations with some Taleban representatives calling for sparing the U.S. Embassy in Kabul from retribution. We hear about calls by governments like the U.S., the UK, Germany, and many others, on their respective national citizens to leave Afghanistan as early as possible.
So we are redrawing the map of possible international assistance during a time which appears not to allow any meaningful forward planning. Everything is based on contingencies. And those calls on the Taleban that the international community will not support a caliphate, threatening the withdrawal of any financial assistance, as much as these statements are rightly put out, they give a futile impression. Diplomacy being the only means for the moment in order to influence the rapidly deteriorating situation, it struggles with credibility in itself. How much of a threat comes from statements like these when Taleban may look for alliances with other forces, and States? States and forces that do not stand for values which we promote, and have promoted in Afghanistan for almost two decades? Values like human rights, the inalienable right of self-determination for women, children, vulnerable groups and minorities? Values like individuals and communities represented through democratic forms of governance? And the values inherent to a rule of law based on international standards, individual and human rights, what about those?
Within the onslaught of written and video reporting about this, I saw news where Afghan women told reporters that they feel being abandoned by international partners. I can only sympathize. Whatever we may tell them, whatever explanation we come up with in relation to why there needed to be an end to an otherwise seemingly endless military intervention campaign, it does not take away this argument. Yes, vulnerable groups, communities, individuals, they rightly express their feeling that they have been left alone. Because this is true, no matter which rationale we use. We have left. And we have left them at the mercy of a movement which has imposed a brutal regime more than two decades ago. Shall we believe those spokespersons of the Taleban that this is not true these days? On my part, I won’t. In my view, this would be foolish. It would be the desperate attempt to close one’s eyes from an undesirable and shameful reality. I prefer not to. Trust comes from credible action. I have not seen any action on the Taleban side that would convince me that this is different, now.
So, aside of all arguments about why the military campaigns failed, or all arguments with which some attempt to say it wasn’t a failure, that we defeted Al Qaeda, and so on and so forth, aside of all dogma discussions on the failure of state building, I stick to the core of what I can see: The current situation likely deteriorates into further violations of human and individual rights for vulnerable individuals, groups, and women and children in the Afghan society. And these violations may occur on a massive scale. Why? Because we have seen that in the past, it’s as simple as that. We have seen it in Afghanistan, we have seen it in northern Mali, we have seen it in many places in the Middle East and Africa, we have seen it in a caliphate which was set up by IS. Do we really need to remind ourselves of the atrocities which have been coming along with radical fundamentalism? Do we need to open the archives of how a strictly imposed law of the Sharia looks like? Do we close our eyes on taking away the right of self-determination from women in Afghanistan? Do we blind ourselves about the fact that already now female children in Taleban-occupied territory can’t go to school any longer?
Whereever we live, people like me believe in promoting the values enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the values of democracy and a rule of law as a system of governance. We see the international system of peace & security becoming more and more eroding, less able to act on a global consent, if at all, when confronted with a country moving away from these principles, or a movement attempting to subjugate an entire population under their cruel interpretation of reality. Whatever it is in addition, the Taleban movement is a fundamentalist movement of men entirely disrespecting values of female members of society, on grounds of an intepretation of Islam which is so far away from the wonderful and peaceful texts which also form a part of Islamic culture, and belief.
It is one thing to witness it from the outside. In Afghanistan, we were inside. We assumed responsibility of assistance, and we became accountable ourselves. So, it is very different to see such deterioration happening in Afghanistan because we took the decision to leave.
Time will tell whether we find a collaborative way forward. But what, if we fail in this, too? Which lesson will this present to those who are opposed to values which we, for a long time, considered to be universal? What does it mean to those values themselves?
In Buddhism, we talk about the temporary nature of all composite things. Do we see the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in its impermanence?
I have no wisdom to offer. But it looks like pointing towards the picture which is at the core of this blog: At some point, I think in 2015, staff members of the United Nations’ Headquarters in New York donned white clothes and gathered outside of the headquarters building. They formed a circle which then was photographed from the air.
The circle reads: “What r u doing for peace?”
Jalāl ad-Dīn Mohammad Rūmī is commonly known as “Rumi”. He lived in Balkh, now part of Afghanistan, in the 13th Century. One of be greatest Islamic mystic poets, I admire his work so much.
Here is my long-time favorite, also a part of how I set up my blog from the beginning on:
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.” ― Rumi
This morning, a German news story popped up. The report informs about the plans of Hungary‘s right-wing political party „Fidesz“ to institutionalize further discrimination against members of the LGBTQI-community. Prime Minister Victor Orban of Hungary, a Member State of the European Union, has tabled a law prohibiting educational programs, and any program advertising topics related to people and communities identifying anything other than heterosexual. Homophobia enshrined into law, if successful. Chances are, it may be.
According to the „Tagesschau“-report behind the link https://www.tagesschau.de/ausland/europa/ungarn-fidesz-homosexualitaet-101.html, educational programs at school that inform and sensibilisize for the rights and needs of minority groups identifying other than heterosexual shall be prohibited. Behind the acronym LGBTQI stand all who identify as lesbian, homosexual, bisexual, transsexual, queer, and intersexual. One of my beloved children would, as a consequence, be ostracized if being educated in Hungary. I dare say I am proud of the exceptionally human educational system of the country where they are being educated. They grow up in a country where they are encouraged to freely identify as whoever they feel they are.
Not in Hungary, or elsewhere where xenophobia and chauvinism continue to take alarming roots, in the middle of the European Union. Let me be clear: We have this everywhere, including in Germany. But a draft law planning to prohibit books, films, and other „content“, aiming at children and juveniles with the intent to prohibit depicting any form of sexuality deviating from heterosexuality, that is entirely another level of erosion of values based on democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human and individual values. I hope that there will be a strong reaction from Brussels. But the mere fact that such an attempt is made is deeply alarming.
As often, this report falls into the category of news which deeply upset me, make me sad, angry, resentful. There are many bits and pieces of such news in my draft folder. They relate to what happens with Muslim minorities in Myanmar, ethnic and religious minority groups in China, including reports about Chinese authorities forcefully subjecting members of that minority group to training Artificial Intelligence software to identify emotions on their faces, with even Microsoft ringing the alarm bells of Orwell‘s „1984“ taken to the the power of 2. My draft folder includes reports about widespread sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and rape, on a broad basis, perpetrators being Afghan Police commanders, victims being female Afghan police officers.
I could go on and on. Of course, the world is chock full with news like these. And these stories need to be told, as this is one vital precondition to act. „AAA“ stands for Awareness, Acceptance, and Action. All three terms are equally relevant.
But from personal experience I know what these stories do: Some people get numb. Some people get cynical. Some people get into a constant spiral of being upset. On the other side of the aisle, these stories positively feed the xenophobia and hate and intolerance of those who have already been caught in the webs of those pied pipers who appear to be a staple of contemporary times.
I name them pied pipers. They thrive off antagonisation. Many of them for ideological reasons. Some of them, including Nr 45 in the U.S., taking this method to the ultimate extreme: They don‘t care about content at all, they only care for the principle of always raising the stakes of antagonisation. This I will try to analyse in a future blog entry, because this method is both simple and complex, and there are people around who have copied this from Nr. 45. Mechanically it is simple: Just respond to anything with radical antagonisation. Psychologically, it is complex: Systematic gaslighting is including that one gaslights oneself. I have written about it here.
But what to do when everything is aimed at making you angry, because this in itself is the aim of the exercise? Does it mean one either becomes a „useful idiot“, as Lenin put it, by angrily responding (and thus doing exactly what the other side intended), or shutting up and thus becoming a member of the group of „silent lambs“? Does it lead to ever more resignation and the feeling of helplessness, harboring deep-seated resentment?
I believe there could be another path: Every story told about the cold heartless business of eroding hard-fought-for values should be accompanied by a story of hope, a profoundly positive story.
So I try this here.
Two days ago, I came back to Serbia after a stay in Germany and another stay in Bosnia & Herzegovina. I was timing my arrival, because my second Covid-19-vaccination was due this weekend.
Here is my story about how I got vaccinated in Serbia:
As a consequence of policy decisions, Serbia had secured considerable amounts of vaccines early on, whether Sinopharm, Sputnik, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, whatever. In difference to neighboring States in the region, and also in difference to, for example Germany, they had a large supply early on. Serbia‘s fast vaccination campaign got noticed internationally.
At the same time when own citizens began to receive their first shots (and not after), the Serbian government started to provide vaccines to the international diplomatic community in Serbia, but they wouldn’t stop there: A week or so after they had opened the possibility to get vaccinated to diplomatic missions, my landlord called me and said she had just watched the announcement on TV that the government was offering vaccines to anyone, including foreigners, as long as one had a foreign ID card and a Serbian phone number.
Mid March, on a Saturday morning, I traveled to the largest vaccination site on the Belgrade Fair compound. I approached a security guard, politely asking whether the information that I could get a shot as a foreigner with no residence in Serbia, would be correct. The guard went in, and came out a minute later with a young staffer, who introduced himself as „Ivan“. In the most friendly manner I have come across, Ivan took me through all registration, helped me arrive at the cubicle with a sign „AstraZeneca“ on it, and fifteen minutes after arriving at the fair I got my first vaccine shot. Ivan accompanied me to the rest area, we had a blast of small talk, and brought me back to the exit of the fair. We parted not without having exchanged contact details before. Since then, Ivan and I exchanged a few mails and planned on having a coffee at the latest when my second shot would be due, after 12 weeks.
Of course, this extraordinary experience made me so grateful. And this gratitude for a most personal experience of kindness also remained throughout the following weeks, when Serbia got credited for this unbuerocratic handling, when many people from neighboring countries of the Western Balkans, and even „vaccine tourists“ form EU countries, arrived at the Belgrade Fair. The public discussion included comments that this also could be seen as a smart public relations move by the Government. All reasonable, but the personal kindness was not an exception and went way beyond what could be named „professional courtesy“, and I heard of it many times.
Now, 11 weeks later I was in Sarajevo, preparing to come back to Belgrade, anticipating an eMail notifying me about my second appointment. With precision, I got this mail, and a text message on my phone. But before that, I received a mail from Ivan.
Ivan had noted the second vaccination date. He offered to help me again. Which I found more than kind, it was „super considerate“. So, two days ago, I met Ivan again. At the Belgrade Fair. And like the first time, I was met with most friendly staff all over the vaccination site, taking me through the second round of vaccination. After which, Ivan and I had planned to have a coffee.
On the way to the coffee place, Ivan greeted a friend, Marco. Friendly and outgoing like Ivan, I got into a conversation with Marco. This led to literally two hours of intense and wonderful time over several coffees, with both Ivan and Marco. Because, as it turned out, Marco had a story to tell which I also wanted to hear in its entirety.
Both Ivan and Marco are youth workers, engaged in supporting meaningful activities for young people. Ivan in Belgrade, Marco as part of a regional non-governmental organization operating in all six jurisdictions of the Western Balkans. As an NGO, I learned, they had gotten international recognition for their work on helping young people all over the Western Balkans, including in reconciling with the divisions which form part of the legacy of conflict and war.
I need to keep it short here, because this blog entry is already one of the longer ones. The work of this NGO will be subject to future blog entries anyway, as soon as I have learned more. But I already know that young people here are fighters for the future of the values that we sometimes feel others are eroding. The point which I want to make here: By chance, and simply because I was curious and open-minded, I learned about what young people here in this region of the world do in order to overcome pre-occupations, divisive nationalist language, and hate. They promote tolerance. They operate truly regional, stay out of politics, and emphasize their pride of being truly multi-ethnic.
They are the present, and the future here, so their stories need to be told. These others, including some pied pipers, those who try to control the news cycle, they may be part of the past, and not knowing it, yet. Telling positive stories, sometimes small, sometimes large, always wonderful, that may help.
Ivan, Marco, and I, we plan a dinner next week. I am going to ask them what they do in terms of LGBTQI rights, and their promotion. I am sure we are going to have another blast of a good conversation.
Which helps me a lot when I see bad news, next time.