Edinburgh, UK, June 19, 2019 — I am honoured to be giving the Fulbright Lecture tonight and want to thank the Fulbright Scholarships and the Universities of Edinburgh and Oxford, and King’s College London, for hosting the lectures. The Scholarships are a living memorial to a remarkable, far-sighted American, who combined deep patriotism with serious internationalism. As a Brit living and working in America, I truly appreciate the insight of the Scholarships that we need to expose and explain the two countries to each other. I can tell you: we’re not the same! However, politics on both sides of the Atlantic is besmirched by common problems of puerile nativism and fake news, so the commitment of the Scholarships to rigorous thinking and a global perspective is needed more than ever.
The central concern of the lecture is a dangerous global trend: what I call the Age of Impunity, which I see every day in my work, and which blights the lives of millions of people around the world. By Age of Impunity, I mean a time when those engaged in conflicts around the world – and there are many – believe they can get away with anything, including murder, whatever the rules and norms. And because they can get away with anything, they do everything. Chemical weapons, cluster bombs, land mines, bombing of school buses, besiegement of cities, blocking of humanitarian supplies, targeting of journalists and aid workers. You name it, we are seeing it, and seeing more of it, and seeing less outrage about it, and less accountability for it.
So this lecture is about the innocent civilians killed or brutalised by conflict, and whether their lives can be saved.
Here is my argument. We have seen impunity throughout history. But today’s Age of Impunity represents a striking deviation from the ten-year period after the middle of the 1990s, when accountability, not impunity, was on the rise. The reasons for this abrupt turn reflect changes in the nature of conflict, and there are some improvements in the interaction between the humanitarian sector and military forces that could make a difference to the lives of the people we serve.
However, the Age of Impunity is born of political changes. It reflects serious shifts in geopolitics. There is a political emergency as well as a humanitarian emergency. The political sea change is that constraints on the abuse of power are being weakened internationally and nationally at the same time. Where the years after the Cold War saw growing civilian protection internationally and a surge in accountable government nationally, so today we see the reverse. The multilateral system is under assault from its cornerstone in the US, and Brexit represents a further attack here in the UK. Meanwhile, checks on executive power at the national level are also being weakened.
This is the new arrogance of power, internationally and nationally, and it needs to be understood and then addressed if the trends towards greater protection of the most vulnerable are to be restored.
Age of Impunity
I am speaking tonight in a personal capacity, but when I fall into “we” in this lecture I mean my colleagues at the International Rescue Committee – a global humanitarian charity founded by Albert Einstein in the 1930s, and now employing around 13,000 staff and 15,000 volunteers in forty countries around the world. We help the victims of war and persecution survive, recover and gain control of their lives. Sad to say, we are a growth business – we have more or less doubled in size in my time as CEO to become an $800 million organisation. And we are a growth business in a growth industry.
I am often asked what I most worry about. The answer is simple: the threats to life faced by my colleagues and by the people we serve. Last Saturday in Niger one of my colleagues was killed when Boko Haram attacked a water project he was visiting. A new and chilling normal is coming into view: civilians seen as fair game for armed combatants, humanitarians seen as an impediment to military tactics and therefore unfortunate but expendable collateral, and investigations of and accountability for war crimes an optional extra for state as well as non-state actors.
The number of civilians directly killed by the tactics of war is rising, also the number of humanitarians killed, and the numbers of civilians killed indirectly not by tactics but by war strategies. I am thinking of places likes Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, South Sudan, Central African Republic. They are called civil wars, but are anything but.
- From 2011 to today there has been a six-fold increase in annual battle deaths, with 2014 and 2015 being the deadliest years on the battlefield since the end of the Cold War. Last year, 70% of casualties from explosive weapons were civilians – more than 20,000 in total.
- Children are particularly at risk, with Save the Children estimating that 142 million children live in high-intensity conflict zones (places with more than 1,000 battle deaths). There are an estimated 1,000 “battle-related” deaths of children every year. In Afghanistan alone, the number of attacks on schools tripled this year from 68 to 192.
- Ethnic cleansing is on the rise. The Freedom in the World report lists 11 cases this year, compared to 3 in 2005.
- In total, there were 973 attacks on health facilities and health workers in 2018, resulting in the deaths of 167 health workers and injuries to 710. In Syria, attacks on health facilities have gone up (by over 80%) not down since the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2286 in 2016, which specifically condemned attacks on medical facilities. Nearly 900 medical workers have been killed by airstrikes since the war started. And there have been at least ten strikes in the past two months alone on health facilities whose locations were shared with the Syrian and Russian militaries specifically with the intention of avoiding attack.
- The number of aid workers killed each year between 2013 and 2018 was more than double the 2001-2005 figure, rising from an average of 52 to 120 a year. Last year 139 were killed, the second highest toll ever recorded.
- In the decade following the Ottawa Treaty, which banned the use of land mines in 1999, the number of landmine related casualties dropped by 62%. But since 2013 that number has increased by 150%, resulting in 8,605 casualties in 2016 alone.
That’s all before you begin to account for the use of chemical weapons, the siege of towns and cities to use starvation as a military tactic, the looting of aid supplies and the widespread rape and sexual abuse. These illegal acts are on the rise because the perpetrators think they can get away with them. That’s impunity.
Impunity does not just explain the fatalities and suffering. The virulence of the violence that defines impunity is a driver of the duration, refugee flows, hatred and recurrence which typify modern war. Remember:
- Civil wars are lasting longer: according to David Armitage’s book Civil Wars, the incidence of civil wars increased ten-fold after the end of the Cold War compared to the whole period of 1820 to 1989. Civil wars now often last as much as four times longer than interstate wars. And civil wars are now on average three times as deadly as they were in the first half of the 20th century.
- These civil wars are generating more refugees (29.5 million) and internal displacement (41 million) than at any time since World War II. On average since 1945, five people have been displaced for every one person killed in conflict. In the Syrian war that ratio has been 25 to 1.
- And there are fewer refugees going home than ever before: just 3% last year. That is not surprising when you consider that the most likely outcome of a civil war is further conflict: 60% of conflicts in the early 2000s restarted within five years.
Contrary, therefore, to the generalised trends towards peace and prosperity documented by Professor Steven Pinker and popularised by the late Hans Rosling, the life chances of civilians caught up in conflict and fragile states around the world have declined in the last decade. While extreme poverty (less than $1.90 a day) is declining worldwide, it is growing in fragile and conflict states; education enrollment is growing globally, but it is falling among those affected by conflict; across the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals there is a growing gap between stable but poor states, where progress in reducing poverty is being achieved, compared to war-torn countries and populations, where the figures are going in the wrong direction.
The Rise and Fall of Accountability
The evidence of this Age of Impunity is all the more shocking to me because it runs directly contrary to the trends that I thought I saw in my time as a politician and policy maker. My first task as Foreign Secretary was to handle a case of Russian state sponsored terrorism on British soil – the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. So I never viewed the world through rose-tinted spectacles.
But I thought that I could see, in the unusual circumstances after the end of the Cold War, a new base camp in the drive for the rule of law in international relations. It turns out the base camp was as good as it gets.
It’s important to remember the history here: The aftermath of the Second World War had seen unprecedented global commitments to human rights, but the historical record was that they were weakly observed.
The preamble of the UN Charter committed every signatory to fundamental human rights, to the dignity of the human person, and to equal rights for men and women and nations large and small. The UN Declaration on Human Rights, adopted in 1946, pledged equality before the law to all human beings. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide was adopted by the General Assembly in 1948. The Geneva Conventions on humanitarian treatment in war, adopted in 1949, said that non-combatants should be treated humanely and that civilian hospitals should in no circumstances be subject to attack. The UN Convention on Refugees, adopted in 1951, barred returning people to places where they would not be safe.
But during the Cold War these commitments were in the main not honored. The UN Charter had reserved for states pre-eminent rights within their jurisdiction. And the Cold War became an excuse to turn a blind eye to terrible abuse. From Czechoslovakia and Hungary to Latin America, from South Africa to Vietnam, from Indonesia to Cambodia, the freedoms promised by the UN Charter were a distant dream.
What’s more the immediate aftermath of the Cold War brought chaos and worse in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda (despite the success of the coalition in the first Gulf War and the No Fly Zone over northern Iraq). I am just reading the new biography of Richard Holbrooke. The reviews have described it as an elegy to the American century. It is also a devastating commentary on the preparedness – or lack of it – of the Vietnam generation for foreign policy service. The author George Packer quotes Holbrooke speaking in the early 1990s as follows: “So far into this new, as yet unnamed era, we have only shown a capability to react, which costs dearly in lives and money. Managing chaos is the foreign policy challenge of the 1990s.”
Yet out of that experience in the early 1990s, in quick time, came an unprecedented effort to narrow the gap between rhetoric and reality. Four factors came together to drive a period of unusually committed humanitarian diplomacy:
- The shame at genocide in Rwanda was a shocking wake-up call. This was an era that was supposed to be defined by the freedom of Nelson Mandela, yet here was mass slaughter on grounds of ethnicity on the African continent, and the world stood by;
- There was the confidence that comes from economic abundance. Notwithstanding the bursting of the dot-com bubble it was said we were in a NICE decade of Non-Inflationary Continuous Expansion;
- There was an unusual consensus across the left-right divide in Western politics about the exigencies of an interdependent world and the need for global rules;
- And the second half of 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, was a time of unusual power for Western liberal democracies. The democratic surge was a genuinely global movement.
The end of the Cold War made possible a whole new debate about the global responsibility for the prevention of atrocities. My former French Foreign Ministerial colleague Bernard Kouchner, before he became Foreign Minister, coined the idea of “humanitarian intervention” (droit d’ingerence in French, which literally means the “right to interfere”).
In 1998 the Rome Statute established the International Criminal Court. Despite a number of setbacks, the ICC and other international tribunals have indicted over 700 individuals and obtained more than 250 convictions.
In 1999, I was in Chicago when Tony Blair tried to establish tests – “considerations” in the final draft of the speech – for the right of intervention in what he called a “doctrine of international community.” He pleaded for America not to take a turn to isolationism, and took it as a matter of common sense that it was unconscionable to turn away from war crimes.
Meanwhile UN Secretary General Kofi Annan set out to redefine state sovereignty head on. He argued that globalisation changed the game. In 1999 Annan wrote, “States are now widely understood to be instruments in the service of their peoples, and not vice versa. At the same time individual sovereignty, by which I mean that fundamental freedom of each individual, enshrined in the Charter of the UN and subsequent international treaties – has been enhanced by a renewed and spreading consciousness of human rights.”
After the genocide in Rwanda and the trauma of Srebrenica in the middle of the 1990s, the clamor that those who commit crimes against their own people be held to account was real. Annan’s International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty gave birth to the idea of Responsibility to Protect. Despite the political divisions and foreign policy mistakes of the invasion of Iraq, (I wrote about this in my book Rescue: Refugees and the Political Crisis of our Time as a strategic disaster), there was a clear new principle in international relations: governments are responsible for the security of their own citizens, but if they don’t fulfill their side of the bargain there is responsibility elsewhere and it will be taken up.
It is worth quoting the key phrases from the 2005 General Assembly Resolution which embraced that idea:
“Each individual state has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement.
“The international community, through the UN also has the responsibility... to help protect populations...
“We are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the security council, in accordance with the charter, including chapter VII, on a case by case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organisations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
This is the antithesis of the Age of Impunity. It was the high point of international confidence and commitment to uphold the standards laid out in the UN Charter. It did not hide behind state sovereignty; instead it explicitly laid out its limits. It was not cavalier about the use of force, but recognised that sometimes it would be necessary. It did not pay lip service to prevention of atrocities; it tried to place prevention centre-stage. Above all it embraced the idea that peace between nations is only half the equation for international stability; the other half is peace and stability within nations, and that requires a different set of principles, a new set of commitments and a new set of tools.
It is right to point out that operationalising these tools is fraught with difficulty, contention, risk. But the 2005 General Assembly resolution did seek to make real the commitments of the UN Charter and other documents. It took seriously the idea of a rules-based international order – more seriously than ever before. And there were lives saved as a result. Would be war criminals were on notice. The balance of power was shifting to accountability not impunity.
That was less than 15 years ago. But since 2005 the slide has been consistent: not more accountability, but less.
Managing the Storm
Some of this shift reflects structural changes in the nature of warfare. There is the internationalisation of civil war, “proxy wars,” where external states intervene militarily on one or both sides. This internationalisation has risen from 6% in 1991 to 40% in 2015. Yemen would be a good example. Meanwhile urbanisation of conflict is a reality, with 85% of armed conflicts taking place in population centres. Organised crime and the war economy has reduced incentives to settlement; DRC would be a good example. And a rise in non-state actors means that the average civil war has 14 parties to the conflict.
This raises a question that humanitarians debate all the time: what can be done better to shield civilians in conflict. Here is some thinking from within the sector.
First, account for urban warfare. Studies show that when explosive weapons are used in populated areas, 92% of those killed or injured are civilians, compared to 25% in other areas. It is pretty shocking that the US should have special institutes for jungle and arctic warfare but not for urban warfare. It is even more shocking to visit Mosul and see what happens when there is not such proper account. In removing ISIS from the city, the old city was more or less completely destroyed.
By contrast, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has established no-fire zones around hospitals, residential areas, markets, religious places of worship, and IDP camps. NATO is also in the process of revising its urban warfare doctrine. Now there is movement for the politics to buttress military efforts. Austria has led fifty countries to sign a political declaration in respect of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. I agree with the Secretary General that all states should join this political process.
Second, take seriously international humanitarian law training and norm adherence. Training in human rights law and military ethics has rightly become a fixture of US military doctrine. Experience shows this needs to be embedded from day one into the curriculum for every soldier and officer; that IHL needs to be anchored in national and community-specific values and history; it needs to be peer-to-peer as much as it is top-down; and it needs to be translated into concrete actions for decision-making and operational actions. My colleagues have found that having humanitarian personnel and IHL experts embedded in military training is more effective than delivering an IHL training to military personnel. The IRC has been involved in this type of work in places like CAR, with some positive results.
As coalition-based engagement increases, the US, UK and other militaries need to hold their partners to the same standards. This is particularly important in places like Yemen.
There is also some evidence from some work with non-state actors that there can be value in such dialogue. One example is the SDF in Syria, which wanted international recognition and embraced international legal commitments, such as the protection of children. The International Committee of the Red Cross has done some good work to translate IHL in the communities where it operates. For example, they have a program which focuses on Islam and IHL, and the CEO has met with Iraqi Shi’ite Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who issued a religious fatwa to remind Iraqi Shi’ites of the Muslim religious tenets requiring humane warfare.
Third, improve monitoring and investigation of civilian casualties. The UN has established a range of reporting mechanisms specific to different conflicts and several Commissions of Inquiry. While the documentation of atrocities is deeply frustrating for those who want accountability now, it is critically important for potential justice long-term. And we should note it is worrying enough for some combatants for them to try and block it. National, multinational and UN operations also have a role to play in tracking civilian casualties to inform military strategy and reduce civilian harm. The most striking example of this was NATO forces in Afghanistan which established a Civilian Tracking Casualty Centre.
These are important ideas. But they are fundamentally constrained. They depend on cooperation of combatants. And they are ignored by many non-state actors, and by states willing to pursue murderous tactics to show that there is such a thing as a military solution. We have seen this in Sri Lanka in 2009; in Syria since 2011, including as we speak in Idlib; in Yemen since 2014; in Myanmar in 2017.
The truth is that the places where we work are not just moral emergencies which need better management. They are also political emergencies.
Humanitarian Emergencies Are a Political Emergency
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the new order is epitomised in the photo of Russian President Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Salman high fiving each other at the G20 meeting in Argentina in November last year. With Syria in ruins, Yemen in crisis, and political opponents like Boris Nemtsov and Jamal Khashoggi dead, theirs was the embrace of two leaders unencumbered by national institutions or by the fear of international law.
The political emergency we face today has two elements. First, the assault on international rule-making and the practice of international institutions. As Foreign Secretary I got used to Russia and China defending indefensible actions by governments who were their friends on the grounds that what a state does within its own borders is its own business. They vetoed a UNSC resolution condemning Robert Mugabe’s abuse of power on these grounds. They blocked action against Sri Lankan bombing of Tamil civilians. But now we have something new: The Trump Administration leading from the front in making the same argument.
If you read President Trump’s first speech to the UN General Assembly, he used the word sovereignty 21 times, arguing for harmonious diversity among nations: different nations following different rules and different faiths. Policy has followed. The US has dropped the promotion of human rights around the world from its policy priorities. It decries international institutions like the International Criminal Court and the WTO and top White House advisors have promoted the idea of a new “nationalist international”. The most basic principle of international relations, that territory should not be taken by force, is being challenged, not just in Crimea by Russia or the South China Sea by China, but by American support for annexation of the Golan Heights and for parts of the West Bank.
Yuval Noah Harari calls the vision a “network of fortresses”. That vision is like saying that in the name of sovereignty every car driver should be free not just to choose their make of car, or to decide which music to listen to, but to decide their own traffic rules. It is like saying that every family should be free to decide not just what to feed their children, or where to educate their children, but what immunisations to give their children.
But when drivers ignore stop signs or families refuse immunisations they are subject to sanction because they are a threat to themselves and to others. That sanction is what is now being lost in international politics.
The global public has noticed. Polling in 25 countries commissioned specially for this lecture by the Policy Institute at King’s College London and Ipsos MORI reveals some striking findings. The United States (22%) is now seen as on a par with Russia (24%) and Saudi Arabia (25%) as countries most likely to use “their influence for bad.” By comparison Germany (32%), Canada (37%), and the UN (35%) are seen as most likely to use “their influence for good.” Britain is in Brexit baulk – neither positive nor negative, more likely to be ignored. The poll shows that around the world large number of people are looking for commitment to human rights and global engagement. However it should be shocking that the US should be perceived to have descended to the level of Russia as a global spoiler.
The political emergency that has created the Age of Impunity does not end there. The retreat from the rule of law in international relations has its match on the domestic front. And you cannot have a rules-based international order without rules-based national order.
The NGO Freedom House has documented that since 2006 more than 100 countries have suffered declines in political freedom. Constitutions are rewritten, dissidents imprisoned, journalists silenced, the media kept at bay. Some countries even have potential Prime Ministers debating the suspension of Parliament itself… This is a democratic recession – successive years in which the number of countries suffering a reduction in political freedom outnumbers those enjoying a growth.
Larry Diamond, author of the forthcoming Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition and American Complacency has summarised what this means: “Every type of regime is getting worse. Liberal democracies are becoming more intolerant. Illiberal democracies are electing authoritarian personalities. Authoritarian regimes that once co-existed with pockets of opposition no longer see the need to bother.”
These two parts of the political emergency – international and domestic – come together. The first part enables the arrogance of power. The second represents it. Together they create the Age of Impunity.
It is worth saying the UK is not immune. In fact Brexit brings these questions centre stage.
The promise of Brexit was to make Britain an independent rule-maker. But in an interdependent world that is a mirage. In fact Brexit reduces our power in global rule-setting, makes us prey to the trade policies of the world’s big powers like the US and China, and castrates our foreign policy (as the recent silence over the Hong Kong protests shows). A country our size cannot afford a world that is a network of fortresses, and cannot expect on its own to push back against that philosophy never mind defend our own interests. And as the debate about suspending Parliament shows, the strains and stresses of Brexit threaten to turn us into rule-breakers at home as well.
The lessons of this political emergency for me are clear.
First, beware the vacuum. The retreat of key parts of the liberal democratic world from global responsibility, starting before the Trump Administration but dramatically extended by it, has created a vacuum, which is being filled by a range of bad actors, who are exacting a terrible price from the world’s most vulnerable.
Second, foreign policy ethics are built on domestic fairness. The Western retreat from responsibility has its origins in foreign policy mistakes – for example shame about genocide in Rwanda has turned into fatigue, and shame, about Iraq – but also in the shattering of economic confidence by the global financial crisis, the crushingly disproportionate gains from economic growth for those at the top, and the strikingly dysfunctional politics of some of the world’s leading democracies. The retreat will not be reversed until there is a new economic and social bargain that delivers fair shares at home.
Third, the fight for civil and political rights is never over. The nationalist and nativist backlash against the rules-based international order has a contagion effect in domestic politics around the world. I was taught at university that civil rights were gained in Britain in the 18th century, and political rights in the 19th century, so the 20th century challenge was social and economic rights. But the lesson of the 100 countries suffering democratic recession is that every generation has to refight the case for civil and political rights. There is no iron law that says dictatorships become democracies but that democracies don’t become dictatorships. Just ask the people of Hungary.
Fourth, it is not enough to criticise the Trump Administration or Brexiteers: we need to remake the case for international cooperation from first principles. The great mistake of the Remain campaign was to duck the argument about sovereignty and duck the argument for reform of international institutions. In or out of Europe, Britain needs the EU to succeed, because international cooperation will remain a must, but for that it needs to be reformed as well as defended.
Fifth, let’s recognise the new dividing line in politics, between those who believe that laws and norms to protect individual rights, in foreign policy and at home, are there to be observed and strengthened, and those who say “the law is for suckers.” Free societies are built on a simple principle, that power needs to be checked, and that principle needs to be upheld today.
The Arrogance of Power
This leads me back to Senator Fulbright. He wrote an important book in 1966, selling 400,000 copies, and in the process breaking with his friend President Lyndon Johnson and many of his party. The focus of the book was foreign policy, and the reason for the breach was Fulbright’s denunciation of the Vietnam War.
It is relevant to the Age of Impunity because of its core thesis, captured in its title: The Arrogance of Power. It is the American version of Lord Acton’s dictum about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely.
Fulbright’s opposition to the Vietnam War came from and reinforced his core view about American power: that the sheer strength of America tempted mistakes on a grand and global scale, born of what he saw as a messianic streak in the American character, compounded by lack of knowledge about the rest of the world, and driven by the undeniable depredations of the communist counterpart in the Cold War.
The Age of Impunity I have described today is a symptom of a New “Arrogance of Power”. The New Arrogance of Power, in contrast to the Fulbright era, is not born of Western liberal democratic nations, intoxicated by their own virtue, throwing their weight around all corners of the world. Quite the opposite.
The Arrogance of Power diagnosed by Fulbright was the product of American strength. The New Arrogance of Power is the product of liberal democratic weakness. The result is the Age of Impunity.
Turning that round requires a change of course in foreign policy. But it also requires something else. The checks and balances that protect the lives of the most vulnerable people abroad will only be sustained if we renew the checks and balances that sustain liberty at home. There is a lot of work for us to do.
The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 29 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future and strengthen their communities. Learn more at www.rescue-uk.org and follow the IRC on Twitter & Facebook.