Jan 30, 2014
Erika Hernandez

The Dreamed Olive Branch

Demolition of Wadi al-Jouz neighborhood, Hama / HRW report on Syria

Demolition of Wadi al-Jouz neighborhood, Hama / HRW report on Syria

Negotiations to achieve peace in Syria are resuming now in Geneva’s UN headquarters, after a brief start in Montreux, Switzerland. United Nations special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, indicated that the ice between the government and the opposition is slowly breaking. Negotiations started with venting feelings and pro and anti-regime journalists pointing fingers towards each other. In order to find a solution to any conflict, oftentimes feelings need to be aired out. However, it is not clear whether both sides will listen to each other in Syria’s case. Particularly when other interested parties that have the power to solve the conflict are not present. Such is Syria’s current state of affairs. Peace negotiations seemingly not including key parties are taking place amidst new revelations that the regime has purposely demolished thousands of homes of families supporting the opposition. Another key indicator complicating the peace talks is the unfortunate delay by the Syrian government in surrendering its chemical weapons materials.

First, according to UN Security Council Resolution 2118, al-Assad’s government has not complied with the first deadline to surrender the “priority one” target of chemical weapons of December 31, 2013. Additionally, Reuters indicated that sources close to the regime report that the regime has no intention of meeting the “priority two” deadline for the February 5 delivery. Accordingly, the main reason for this delay are security concerns and the need for ‘additional’ equipment such as containers. At the negotiations table in Geneva, the Syrian regime has been accused by the opposition journalist Ahmed Zakaria in using, allegedly, food aid delivery as a bargaining tool. If this is so, then such a bargaining tool would contradict the UN SC resolution where the international community demanded that humanitarian aid be provided with no qualms. However, the frankness on the weapons delay appears to be questionable when looking at the Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) recent report on Syria.

In its report, HRW reveals seven large-scale demolitions that took place between July 2012 and July 2013. It also provides satellite images where the demolitions took place. The report also mentions that such destructions took place in neighborhoods that had supported the opposition. A total of, at least, 145 hectares were destroyed which are comparable to “200 football pitches.” With this, credibility of the al-Assad regime by global civil society and several members of the international community, albeit secretly, is under suspicion. Yet, is it the al-Assad regime the only one to blame? Quite honestly, we must look deeper down the rabbit hole so as to perceive a clearer picture.

Syria’s conflict is not only run by the government and the opposition. The government’s weakening has created a power vacuum that non-state actors have taken advantage of. In an article, the New York Times mentions that President al-Assad’s government does no longer hold control of its oil and gas resources. Rather, two splinter groups from Al Qaeda are the ones holding power over these resources and even selling them to the al-Assad government. These groups are the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Nusra Front. The opposition has been accusing the government for working with these radical groups and protecting them. Some experts also indicate that the Syrian government has been relying on regional oil imports from Iran and Iraq. Perhaps, it is in the government’s best interest to keep this armed and rebel groups on their side, in case they need their help to fight the opposition. Moreover, perhaps one of the reasons against intervening in Syria is that, if Bashar al-Assad’s government were to lose power, then Al Qaeda related cells could take over the state.

Other opposition groups are seemingly not present in the table. Pablo Estrada’s previous post mentions the Syrian National Council, the National Coordination Committee and the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. It is highly likely that the parties sitting on the negotiations table are the softliners in the government and in the opposition. In this regard, we should first question what is the role of these former Al Qaeda cells and how are they preventing the conflict from being solved. Are they influencing the government from abstaining from offering the olive branch? If so, to what extent is their influence? This could be key. In every negotiation, softliners are the ones sitting on the table. However, what happens when we realize that we may be missing key decision makers (in this case, non-state actors)? Then, we are clearly avoiding to advance democracy and preventing any possible progress in any political transition. Indeed, some may say that it is unethical to deal with non-state actors such as Al Qaeda because it would imply their recognition and giving them unnecessary attention. Yet, in order to reach peace, some degree of empathy must be shown by listening to our greatest enemy.

Jan 29, 2014

Security by the Commons

Federal and state authorities, along the leaders of vigilante groups, after the signature of the agreement formalizing the operations of self-defense groups in the Mexican state of Michoacán (from La Jornada).

Federal and state authorities, along the leaders of vigilante groups, after the signature of the agreement formalizing the operations of self-defense groups in the Mexican state of Michoacán (from La Jornada).

On Tuesday the battle against organized crime in Mexico opened a new chapter. Due to the increasing insecurity in the region, some local citizens of the South Western state of Michoacán decided to take arms themselves and defend their people and properties against the existing threats. However, the actions of these vigilante groups, referred to as self-defenses, and their clashes with the organized crime, were growing out of control. Hence, the government decided to intervene by increasing the presence of soldiers and federal police forces in the state and, notably, signing an agreement with the heads of the self-defense groups to “institutionalize” them.

Self-defense groups are not novel in Michoacán or in other regions of the country. Many times, state and municipal authorities are surpassed by the task of fighting organized crime (they are threatened, extorted, bribed, co-opted, or murdered). Yet, local habitants refuse to yield to criminals and organize their own defense. This has created several problems to the government. For starters, the Constitution grants to the state the monopoly of security tasks. In this sense, the legality of the mere existence of self-defense groups was heavily questioned. In addition, detentions, prosecutions, or other activities of these collectives did not necessarily take place within the rule of law, increasing the risk of arbitrariness and abuses. For this, at some point the line between self-defense groups and criminals could be blurred.

In the state of Michoacán self-defenses emerged years ago when illegal wood cutters were devastating the forests in the region, on whose resources depend the inhabitants of those communities. Later on, Michoacán became one of the centers of the fight against organized crime; local people had to defend against wood cutters and drug gangs. This problem was deepened with the chronic incapacity of state authorities to face those threats.

Now, the federal and local governments have subscribed an agreement with self-defense groups in an attempt to acknowledge their contribution to security tasks in the region. Within the framework of the agreement, the vigilante groups will have to “respond” to military and police authorities in Michoacán (there is no mention on formal coordination mechanisms) and their members are required to receive government clearance. However, it is worth noting that days before, the Secretary of Governance seemed to have another goal for self-defenses: to disarm them and deploy soldiers and policemen to take over their activities. This change in attitude from confrontational to conciliatory has generated some debate and, until now, has remained unexplained. Pragmatism (because it would be counterproductive to try to fight self-defenses and because the government could use more resources in reestablishing security) could be at the core of the explanation.

Whatever the reason in deciding to sign it, the agreement is relevant because it formally incorporates a new actor in the fight against organized crime. On the one hand, this could receive a positive assessment because it opens a window for citizen participation in security policies. For sure, community police corps exist in other countries and in other regions of Mexico. But because for this particular case the environment is the fight against drug trafficking organizations a new dynamic could take place. The threat is economically, politically, and militarily very powerful. Yet, as previous actions have demonstrated, policies designed and implemented with a strong involvement of local actors have an added value that do not enjoy actions coming only from the federal level.

The details of this new dynamic are still to be seen. Will the feeble state of Michoacán be strengthened by the formal incorporation of citizens into security tasks? Will drug dealers try to buy off citizens, as they have done with public officials? Will the Army and Police be able to keep a check on self-defenses to prevent them from abusing of fellow citizens? Will self-defenses restrict their activities to security, without establishing centers of power under their own rule? How will they receive their resources? Answers to these questions will be outlined in future months.

Jan 27, 2014
Jonathan Evans

Call for Papers

Democracy & Society Vol. 11, Issue 2 (Spring-Summer 2014)

Georgetown University’s Center for Democracy and Civil Society is seeking well-written, interesting submissions of 1,500 – 2,000 words for their Spring 2014 publication Democracy & Society. Covering the themes below, the submissions can be new publications, summaries, excerpts of recently completed research, and works in progress. Submissions for this issue will be due on March 16, 2014. Please email all submissions along with a brief author’s bio to democracyandsociety@gmail.com.

Ten Years of CDACS: The State of Democracy and Democracy Studies

2014 is a watershed year for both the Center for Democracy and Civil Society (CDACS) and the study of democracy. On the one hand CDACS celebrates its 10th year anniversary. On the other hand it is now 40 years since the Carnation Revolution and the beginning of the Third Wave of democratization. This issue of Democracy and Governance invites scholars, practitioners, and students to share analysis, advice, and lessons-learned about the state of democracy and democracy studies. What have we learned about democracy and governance over the past 40 years? What has surprised us and what lessons were possibly missed? What new puzzles do scholars of democracy still need to address and what analytical tools might they use?

We are seeking articles that address the following issues and questions:

The Global State of Democracy: There is growing consensus that the past decade has not been conductive toward democratic reform. Indeed, in recent years we hear more of democratic backsliding, crises of governance, and the rise of electoral authoritarianism. Is this an accurate assessment of the state of democracy or is it premature to lament the global spread of democracy? What factors are impacting democratic and non-democratic trajectories at a global level?

New Insights into Democratization Theory: Theories of democratization have evolved since the Third Wave, concurrent with new empirical evidence from the former Soviet Union, Sub Saharan Africa, and more recently the Middle East. How have scholars adjusted their understanding of the factors contributing to electoral transitions and democratization? What cases have helped shed new light on theories of democratization and how?

The Promotion of Democracy and Governance: The field of democracy promotion has undergone fundamental changes since the Third Wave. What lessons have practitioners of democracy learned from their experiences on the ground, and which of these lessons have been internalized by democracy promotion organizations (and which have not)? How has the field of democracy and governance promotion addressed the changing international landscape, especially as foreign aid becomes a less effective tool?

Teaching Democracy and Governance: Teaching democracy and governance at the graduate level is a recent development, and CDACS’s M.A. in Democracy and Governance is one of only a handful of programs dedicated to these themes. Are current educational efforts (offered by universities and professional organizations) adequately preparing students for the contemporary challenges of democracy and governance promotion, as well as for the professional demands of the field? What forms of training and education have proven effective and which are missing form current educational offerings?

Please visit democracyandsociety.com for further details on this call for papers.

Jan 27, 2014
Erika Hernandez

The Power of the Many

Protests in Ukrain / APF

Protests in Ukrain / APF

Recent protests in Ukraine can be thought of as objections against reversing the victories gained during the Orange Revolution. Recent decisions adopted by President Yanukovych such holding back from increasing interconnectedness with the European Union, are one of the causes that sparkled demonstrations. These protests seem to be greater in number and in indignation degree than those of the Orange Revolution. Yet, how can the power of the many counterbalance the power of the most powerful (oligarchs) if the former holds a grip on decision-making?

In November 2013, Ukraine and the EU were about to sign a comprehensive trade and association agreement that would help embark Ukraine in europeanization. It would also require releasing from jail former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who had contended with current President Viktor Yuschenko for the 2010 presidential elections. Yakunovych confessed to Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite that the reason he had not signed the treaty was due to Russia’s threat in blocking Ukranian imports. When earlier this month, the government overused its coercion power for silencing demonstrations, a greater number of people poured to the streets and, hence, protests became more strident.

Nevertheless, these en masse protests do not only derive from the unwillingness to sign the accord. They represent the discontent against reversing Ukraine’s hope for democracy and, thus, better living standards for all. After his election, Yakunovych reversed the democratic gains of the Orange Revolution by curtailing the parliament’s power. The parliament was no longer able to influence policies of the executive branch by nominating the Prime Minister but it was now the President responsible for this. These protests are about Ukrainians calling for change. One evidence of this is that the two main figures in the opposition have refused to accept the President’s proposals that offered them two cabinet positions in exchange for ending the protests. In addition, the President also offered to review the Constitution that could possibly constrain presidential powers. However, the propositions do not suggest having new presidential elections nor do they seek to abrogate the new laws constricting freedom of protest.

But ‘feeling afraid’ for losing trade benefits with Russia seems to be just a veneer covering the interests of the rich and wealthy. During the last few years, the President’s party “Party of Regions” developed strong connections with Russia. Yanukovych also appears to be defending the Russian card since numerous members of his political and business allies have strong linkages with Russia. Despite the denunciations of slashing freedom of expression, other features about Ukranian democracy stand out. During the 2004 election, Yakunovych’s campaign members were accused of having committed fraud and other electoral malpractices. If Yakunovych left such a terrible precedent, then why was he voted in 2010? Perhaps there was more money to buy expensive allies.

Oftentimes, democracy comes about through the power of the people on the streets. Leaders come to power if the strongest and best organized coalition backs them and win. While waiting for election results, we democrats hope that the wining –and best organized– coalition is the one that is truly committed to advancing democracy. In the case of Ukraine, the power of the people is there. Hopefully, the power of the pro-EU allies is stronger than that Russian allies. If Yakunovych and his clique were left to determine the kind of institutions that govern Ukraine, the effect would be devastating. It could be even more devastating if the oligarchs were to extract as much as possible in the least possible amount of time if they perceive that their reign is about to fade. The country would be, unfortunately, drained of democracy and hope.

Jan 24, 2014
Erika Hernandez

The Need for Politics of Compassion


Protests supporting Edgar  Tamayo in the state of Morelos, Mexico. Source: AP.

Protests supporting Edgar
Tamayo in the state of Morelos, Mexico. Source: AP.

This Wednesday, Edgar Tamayo –a Mexican by birth– died through lethal injection in Texas. Texan authorities denied Edgar the right to use Mexico’s consular services and opposed to cancel such decision as advocated by the International Court of Justice and by Obama’s Administration. Whether Edgar was guilty or not for having killed a policeman, such issue reveals a deeper issue in the U.S. That of attaining inclusiveness. An important feature that any democratic polity bares is to cover all, if not most, of its societal groups under its umbrella of policies. Despite Martin Luther King’s fight to expand civil and political rights to African-Americans here, the first and most recent minority is not yet fully included in American policymaking –Hispanics.

In 1994, policeman Guy Gaddis, captured Edgar Tamayo for having committed robbery. Edgar tried to escape and shot officer Gaddis in the head. Twenty years after, he was charged with dead penalty and died. Indeed, anyone who bypasses the rule of law needs to be judged for his or her acts. Yet, what happens when the polities of a subnational unity, such as that of a local state, clash with those of the national unity which has adopted treaties protecting human rights? Well, in this case, we get a clash between a majority and a democratic polities.

The U.S., Mexico and other 174 countries have ratified the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of the United Nations. However, in 2004 the International Court of Justice ruled that the U.S. had breached its obligations by having detained 51 Mexican nationals and deprived them from consular assistance, such as the right to gain legal representation. Through its Embassy in Washington D.C., the Mexican government tried to influence such decision but the attempts were futile. The OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights also tried but no echo resonated in Texas. With the hopes of having Edgar avoid the death penalty, citizens his hometown in the state of Morelos, congregated either to pray or protest his death.

Regardless of these appeals, the Governor of Texas, Rick Perry eloquently declared that this was not about racial discrimination but that of equality before the law. Through the State Department, the Obama Administration carefully cautioned the Governor that such measure could negatively impact the treatment of Americans abroad. This is of particular importance since there are around 1 million American expats living in Mexico. The administration condemned such action and called upon Congress to pass the Consular Notification Compliance Act. Whether the law passes or not, the lack of inclusion is more serious than what we might consider. As of 2011, nearly 60% of the inmates in the United States were minorities –blacks and Hispanics. However, both groups are only 28% of the American population and are greatly overrepresented in jail. Is it because racial profiling makes easier to catch criminals? Is it because poverty leads many steal to feed their families? Is it because resentment causes them to behave socially unacceptable? Or is it because the system simply does not offer them equal opportunities to thrive?

Whatever reasons you may want to attribute, the fact is that figures show the need for a better approach to this subject. A better and more inclusive approach or engaging in “politics of compassion” would be beneficial for the U.S. in different arenas. For starters, “politics of compassion” would be consistent with Martin Luther King’s calls for social justice. These new policies would also reinforce the core values of the American melting pot –no matter where you come from, this is the land where many come to make their dreams come true. First, Mexico and the U.S. are now deeply intertwined in several different dimensions: political, economic, trade-wise, social, among others. So, disregarding the rights of foreign nationals’ can foster resentment that can affect other areas of the bilateral relation. And second, the presence of Hispanics here is undeniable. True, some Hispanics are illegal and break the law. But this doesn’t make them undeserving of their human rights. If in a democracy all members are to abide by the rule, then they should also be equally incorporated. Whether documented or undocumented Hispanics, they constituted a reality in the states that can no longer be ignored. Such reality has already had a far-reaching impact. President Obama was voted in with and by the Hispanic support but he contradictorily paid back by increasing the number of Hispanics deportations. For now, it seems plausible that politics of compassion could drive the next presidential candidate into office.

Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

Email Subscription to D&S and Blog

* indicates required

Posts by Region

Posts by Topic

Switch to our mobile site