Kashmir is one of the world’s longest simmering trouble spots. A trio of wars (1947, 1965, and 1971) and a large almost war (1999) have been fought between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, a landlocked territory that lies between the two nuclear-armed countries.
Disputes over territory and identity are among the most difficult to resolve, and the conflict over Kashmir relates to both issues. The conflict also shows how the effects of colonialism still lead to conflict even with nearly seven decades passed since the end of British rule.
The British colony of India was partitioned along religious lines with Pakistan and India emerging as two separate countries from the colony. The partition saw the displacement of millions of people as communal violence accompanied the transition to independence.
In this environment, the region of Kashmir was split between the two new states as a result of the first of the three wars fought between India and Pakistan since independence. These wars were bitter, especially the 1971 war that led to the independence of Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) and conflict has simmered between the two nations for nearly the entire post-colonial period. Pakistan, the smaller and weaker party in the conflict, has used asymmetric warfare as part of its strategy in the conflict, supporting a number of armed organizations that deploy terrorist tactics against Indian army units in Kashmir and occasionally in attacks in other parts of India.
Since 1998 both India and Pakistan have deployed nuclear weapons as part of their military arsenals, making the fighting along the disputed “Line of Control” in 1999 especially dangerous.
Both countries maintain a fairly high level of repression in their parts of Kashmir, so conflict occasionally boils over into open violence. This was the case last week when the Indian army killed a well-known Kashmiri activist. That killing led to mass protests, with some turning violent. Violence was used by Indian security forces, leading to additional deaths and many, many injuries.
The conflict escalated in a confused series of incidents along the border this week. India claims these were limited, precision attacks on terrorist targets. Pakistan claims these were an unusually large round of general attacks, merely larger versions of the low-intensity conflict that is a constant along the Line of Control.
For student of international relations, this is one of those horrifying enduring conflicts that is also an excellent example of how conflicts endure for long periods. A post-colonial mess emerges around identity and territory. This conflict is unresolved as weak states are unable to decisively defeat each other. The conflict becomes part of both states narratives of national identity, making it hard to compromise in any way. The conflict bubbles up into occasional wars, reinforcing the image of the conflict as live and ongoing and keeping old hatreds fresh.
The resulting “enduring rivalry” is a relationship in which the two sides take violent conflict as the status quo that defines what is normal. Peace is a strange innovation. Once the pattern is set and the rivalry process is locked in, it can be very difficult for peace to emerge.
So, are India and Pakistan doomed to fight forever over Kashmir? No, even enduring rivalries end. Sometimes they end with a bang, with war erupting that ends up destroying one or both of the parties. The Anglo-German rivalry ended with the decisive defeat of Germany at the end of the Second World War after over six decades.
Other times, the rivalry comes to a spectacular end as the equilibrium breaks due to unforeseen events. The US-Soviet rivalry ended in 1989 when the USSR collapsed due to internal struggles. And sometimes the parties just get tired of it all and the conflict dies out as new generations lose interest in the older conflicts and the incidents of violence get farther and farther apart until they cease entirely.
So, there is hope for Kashmir yet. But don’t hold your breath.
In a world of international tension with conflicts increasingly dissolving into violence or appeals to force, it can be a comfort to remember that most conflicts in international relations are resolved peacefully. Even when the economic and political stakes are high, it is possible to find a resolution peacefully.
The United States and the EU have been engaged in tit-for-tat legal disputes at the WTO for several years over the respective governments’ subsidies and other aid for the world’s largest aircraft makers: Airbus and Boeing.
The World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled last week that state aid to Airbus, the European aircraft maker, is illegal under WTO rules. It is expected to rule that similar state aid to Boeing is illegal in a few months.
The stakes are high, with billions of dollars of trade hanging in the balance given the size of both companies and their near-total dominance of the global large aircraft market.
But how are such rulings enforced? In an anarchic international system of sovereign states, there is no central authority to enforce international legal rulings. While the WTO governs global trade, it cannot force states to pay penalties.
The WTO uses a novel system for enforcing its rulings: retaliation. Under the WTO rules, member states are normally supposed to maintain relatively open trade with each other. There is a basic set of standards that serve as a baseline for open trade between members. To break these rules (as the EU did in support of Airbus) is seen as a violation of the WTO rules.
When a state is determined to have broken the WTO rules, the dispute settlement mechanism (DSM) calculates the value of the harm done by the rule-breaking. The plaintiff in the case is then authorized to impose retaliatory trade barriers (often in the form of tariffs) on the offending state until such time as the illegal policy is changed. This imposes a cost in the rule-breaker without threatening the WTO system as a whole.
The end result is that the WTO relies on the harmed member state sanctioning the rule-breaker in order to enforce its rules. In the absence of the WTO being able to enforce the rules itself, this provides a means of enforcement, even in a system of sovereign states. While the system has its flaws, the enforcement mechanism at the WTO allows states to engage in conflict resolution using a formal, legal process that mirrors that of domestic legal systems without violating state sovereignty.
The civil war in Syria is one of the more depressing elements of modern international relations. After a week of a nominal cease-fire, the war resumed on a massive sale with the Syrian government launching its largest offensive in years. This follows on what the United States and the United Nations has called the Russian bombing of an aid convoy earlier in the week.
In short: what was a mess for the last five years is still a mess.
Worse: there is no end in sight.
Few ongoing events show the weakness of global governance as clearly as the Syrian conflict. With a range of major powers taking opposing sides and a range of regional powers taking their own positions, the Syrian civil war is a hot mess. Without a central authority that can impose a solution, the mix of actors has left the country a chaotic train wreck.
Few events illustrate the problems of global governance more clearly than what appears to be the deliberate attack on an aid convoy by Russian aircraft during the short-lived recent cease-fire. After nearly a week of waiting for formal permission to travel to revel-held parts of Syria (a requirement for UN relief missions given Syrian sovereign rights within their borders) a convoy departed for rebel-held Aleppo. While traveling the declared route the convoy came under repeated attack from the air. Only Russia and the Syrian government operated air units in the region (no opposition forces have aircraft, nor does Islamic State.)
The United States has claimed that Russia launched the attacks. Russia argues that the only aircraft in the area were American drones, so if it was an air attack, it was the United States who bore responsibility.
In short, it’s a mess.
With the resumption of a large offensive by the Syrian government and its Russian supporters on September22nd, the cease-fire is a dead letter, in spite of US Secretary of State, John Kerry, seeking to salvage it.
There are many issues related to these events that impact the international system, but the continued impotence of international organizations in the face of determined action by Russia and the Syrian government calls the role of global governance into question. For five years the United Nations has made bold statements that have fallen flat. Few in Syria take such talk seriously, as evidenced by widespread derision that greeted the latest cease-fire even before it collapsed.
As the civil war continues, it is not clear how the international community can moderate or stop the conflict. The war without end drags on.
The United Nations is often seen as a dull organization that spends a lot of time talking about world issues and occasionally acting on them. This is normally done by professional diplomats that no one has ever heard of, with occasional appearances by more notable leaders if things get a bit dangerous. But once each year world leaders descend on New York to open the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and offer their views of the priorities for the coming year.
This year we see the 71st Session of the UNGA and the meeting comes at a particularly difficult time for the UN as an organization. Numerous serious issues exist in global governance. Managing over twenty million refugees, countering terrorist organizations and other violent non-state groups, the enduring war in Syria (which saw what appeared to be a deliberate attack on a UN relief convoy this week), and a general sense that global peace and security are under threat.
The UN was originally created to tackle problems of peace and security and has gradually added to its portfolio over the decades. This has led to an increase in the issue areas that the UN has taken up. This expansion is reflected in the agenda for the UN in the 71st Session.
The issue of the ongoing war in Syria and the inability of the sides to make peace is closely related to the crisis arising from the flow of refugees. This conflict has defied easy solutions, and it challenges the UN’s ability to act as a peace-maker when major powers are involved in the fighting. With the US and Russia at odds over a solution and with interventions by Iran, Turkey, and others, the complexity of the conflict makes any resolution difficult. Without the ability to coerce the parties to a settlement, the UN often appears to be a bystander in the conflict.
Climate change is a significant factor as the Paris Agreement winds its way through the ratification process among UN members. The implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development presents additional challenges as member states try to build on the success of the Millennium Development Goals to continue progress in poverty reduction. And the list continues.
At the end of the day, the UN is the only global organization with a broad mandate to aid in solving global problems on a wide range of issues. At the end of the day, the UN must cope with the lack of central enforcement power or the ability to enforce its decisions. The UN must rely on member states to carry out its work and that can be problematic.
In spite of the problems, the UN remains an important forum for communication and coordination in tackling global problems. And for a few days, the star power of the opening of the UNGA session can make things interesting.
North Korea staged its most successful nuclear test to date on September 9th. A detonation in the 10 kiloton range indicated that this was the most powerful of the devices tested in the North Korean nuclear program. Combined with recent tests of land-based and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, this represents continued advancement in the program.
Just how much this matters is open to debate. It clearly threatens other states in the region, most notably South Korea, but also Japan. The two allies of the United States are already within range of North Korean ballistic missiles and North Korea claimed that this latest test was of a miniaturized device designed to be loaded onto these missiles. More powerful missiles that can hit the western half of the United States are in development, although progress is difficult to measure.
But would North Korea use these weapons? There is no rational incentive to use these weapons in a first strike. Initiating a nuclear war with the United States would certainly end badly for North Korea given the massive superiority of the US nuclear arsenal both in numbers and in the quality of the weaponry. The main fear is that North Korea may not act in a manner consistent with rational decision-making. It could also sell its nuclear and ballistic missile technology to other rogue states. It is known to have shared technology with Iran, aiding the Iranian missile program.
So, North Korea represents a potential threat, but one that is hard to measure. So why doesn’t the international community act more forcefully to deter the North Koreans from continuing to develop these weapons?
International negotiations can be thought of as bargaining. The sides make their pitches for various policy outcomes and try a mix of carrots and sticks to get what they want.
The problem is this: What do you do with a state like North Korea? Beyond political survival, it is hard to see larger goals for the country. North Korea is largely cut off from the international community, so economic sanctions are largely irrelevant. Only China has significant trade relations, and China has good reason to fear the chaos that would come with a collapse of the North Korean state. So Chinese support for the North Korean state is unlikely to be withdrawn so long as China does not fear the consequences of the nuclear program.
The United States and other great powers could destroy North Korea militarily, but only at great cost. Seoul, the capital of South Korea is in artillery range of the North and would most likely be destroyed and most of its people killed at the start of any conflict. The economic and human cost of such a war would be massive.
So long as North Korea maintains the ability to inflict these costs, there is not likely to be any military solution. So long as North Korea is content to remain separate from the international trade system, there is little leverage that can be applied.
The result is a continued muddle of speeches and occasional finger pointing between the United States and China. All the while, the North Korean nuclear capacity grows and the world keeps its fingers crossed.
The story sounds familiar: the “whump” of the helicopter, the pause followed by the explosion of the barrel bomb. Another sound is also becoming painfully familiar: choking. The barrel bombs are a frequent occurrence, but it remains relatively rare for the bombs to include chemical weapons. Rare, but familiar.
Chemical weapons are banned by international treaty. The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is an international treaty that bans the possession and use of chemical weapons by all countries. The norms against their use are strong enough that international law treats the use of chemical weapons as a crime against humanity.
Chemical weapons are nasty, harming indiscriminately in the target area. Their deliberate use against civilian targets during a conflict is recognized as a war crime.
None of that has deterred the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Civil War. Early on the Syrian government forces allegedly engaged in small-scale attacks, leading the American President, Barak Obama, to draw the famous “red line” in 2012. This threatened American military intervention if any such weapons were used.
In 2013 the Syrian government attacked civilians using sarin nerve agent in Ghouta (a suburb or Damascus), killing over 1,500 people. The Syrian government initially denied the attack, but later evidence confirmed that the attack took place. A deal was struck and some Syrian chemical weapons were removed and destroyed following this attack, but periodic chemical attacks have continued, but with the less lethal chlorine gas instead of sarin. The Islamic State organization is also alleged to have carried out attacks with chlorine gas on several occasions.
If chemical weapons have been banned by an international convention, and their use is a crime against humanity and a war crime, why do these weapons continue to be used against civilian targets? Unfortunately, this is one of those hard questions of international relations. It is not hard because it is difficult, it is hard because it forces actors to face the difference between domestic and international law.
Domestic political systems are hierarchically ordered: there is an ultimate authority at the top that enforces the laws on everyone in that system. In the United States, we have the Constitution that describes how this works for us. Other countries use different systems.
International politics is anarchically ordered: there is no ultimate authority at the top. All nation-states are sovereign and no nation-state can legitimately interfere in the internal politics of another nation-state. Nation-states may make international commitments, but they are bound only by the will of other states to enforce those agreements by paying the costs to do so.
In Syria, things are even more complicated. While nearly all nation-states have signed the CWC, Syria had not until after the 2013 sarin attacks. Having not signed, Syria was not bound by its provisions. So while the international community considered chemical weapons to be illegal, Syria was not bound to follow that rule until after October 2013. This makes the more recent attacks violations of Syria’s treaty commitments, but leaves the sarin attacks in early 2013 in a grey area. The Ghouta attack (the only one definitively confirmed by outside actors) was a war crime (an indiscriminant attack on civilians) but not a violation of the CWC.
At the start of this blog post, things seemed simple: the Syrian government forces have broken international law. By now, it is not so clear. War crimes are plentiful in Syria. The death toll grows daily and more than half the population has been displaced. So, where does chemical weapons use fit? And will any of those who commit these acts ever see justice.
It is impossible to tell at the moment, but there is the International Criminal Court (ICC) for these kinds of actions. If the post-conflict justice process in Syria (whatever that turns out to be when the conflict finally does end) does not provide justice, there is some hope that the ICC can handle it.
For now, enforcement of international law requires the political will of the international community. And that has been missing for at least five years. There is no reason to expect that it will change in year six.
It sounds odd, but boring is often a good thing in global governance. Excitement can mean tension and danger, or at least a good dose of fear. At the Group of 20 (G20) Summit in Hangzhou, boredom was what China had wanted and boredom was what China got.
While most people are familiar with the United Nations (UN) and its large, bureaucratic approach to global governance, the G20 is far less familiar. The informal nature of the organization and the often dull nature of its meetings make it much less exciting than the fractious UN. But that does not mean that the work of the G20 is less meaningful or that it does not play a key role in managing global governance.
The Group of Seven (G7) was an informal grouping of the largest economies of the Western block during the Cold War. It was a talking-shop where problems that did not fit into other institutions could be worked out. At the end of the Cold War, Russia became a regular participant, expanding the group to eight members. In the financial crisis of 2008, there was a recognition that the reality of economic power in the international system had changed and that more countries had a place in these discussions. The G20 was born.
The G20 does not have a formal secretariat and it is not a formal inter-governmental organization (IGO). This means that the grouping has no formal power to enforce rulings and no way commitments among its members to comply with any agreements. In spite of this, the G20 is an important forum for facilitating communication and cooperation among the major powers in the international system.
This G20 meeting focused on a narrow range of issues where consensus was possible, with more contentious issues left to side meetings taking place between specific leaders. Among the high hopes for the meeting was a deal between the US and Russia over Syria, but this failed to materialize. The meeting ended on a dull note with the final communique (the statement of consensus) focusing on vague generalities and not on specific decisions.
But in a tense world with many problems, the dull nature of the G20 meeting is something of a break from the tension. The informal nature of the meeting meant that contentious issues were discussed largely behind closed doors. In spite of a number of gaffes and a last minute disruption when North Korea chose the closing day of the summit to fire three ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan, the meeting did not add to the world’s problems.
For an informal grouping intended largely as a talking shop, that kind of boredom can be success.
One year ago, pictures of a dead child being fished out of the ocean shocked the world when they were shared on social media. The image of the body of Alan Kurdi spread and there was a momentary uptick in the sympathy for refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil War. Doors briefly opened for refugee families and there was a brief surge in donations to refugee organizations.
A year later, the world has largely forgotten Alan Kurdi. The attitude towards refugees in Europe and North America has soured, with mainstream candidates calling for bans of asylum-seekers and even for expelling ones that have already been resettled. Funding has fallen off, and NGO’s struggle to provide a minimal life for the more than 20 million displaced persons in the Middle East and North Africa. Hundreds of refugees have died in attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea this summer in rickety, overcrowded boats.
International humanitarian law has clear requirements for refugee resettlement and asylum. These laws mean little when they bump up against populist and nationalist fears of people with different religious traditions and strange accents. In the absence of domestic political support for asylum, international law is not worth the paper it is written on.
Meanwhile, the causes of the largest displacement of persons since the end of the Second World War continue to churn with no end in sight. The civil war in Syria continues unabated, with all sides resorting to brutal tactics aimed against the civilian population. The chaos in Libya continues unabated as various militia groups vie with a weak internationally recognized government for control of the country while simultaneously battling militants claiming allegiance to the Islamic State group. Civil war has returned to South Sudan with rival forces battling for control of the world’s newest country. The list goes on, and on, and on. Turbulence in the crumbling or failed states combines with war to displace people by the millions.
NGO’s and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) are on the front lines of the displacement. Nation-states may have obligations under international law, but they are unwilling to brave the domestic political winds in most of the countries with the most capacity to help. A few exceptions such as Lebanon and Jordan have taken on massive numbers. Turkey has become the home for many more, a fact that the Turkish government has used as leverage in negotiations with the European Union. But it is the NGO and IGO actors who try to fill the gap in resources. This has led to some desperate pleas for assistance.
Refugee resettlement is not an easy issue. Refugees require help to get resettled and this includes a cost. Historically the cost is offset by the long-run contributions of the refugees to the local economy, but that is often several election cycles in the future. Political leaders are not known for such long-term thinking. Economic malaise has also left the ethno-nationalist right in a strong political position in many Western countries. The idea that only some racial groups can really be citizens has become part of the rhetoric of mainstream politicians in the United States and the EU. That makes it unlikely that there will be a change in policy any time soon.
No change in the forces driving refugees from their homes. Growing hostility in potential host countries. A year after a child’s death made people think briefly about refugees, the problem remains at the top of humanitarian challenges for global governance.