Sunday 20 Sep 2020 | 14:41 | SYDNEY
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About the project

The Global Issues program examines themes that lie at the intersection of global political trends and Australia’s interests, specifically US foreign policy, global migration & multilateral institutions.

The program has published ground-breaking papers on diasporas, the provision of consular assistance to Australians overseas, and Australia’s asylum-seeker policy.

Latest publications

Cholera in Haiti: Is UN immunity now impunity?

Sara Dehm is a PhD researcher working on international law, global institutions and migration governance at the Melbourne Law School.

Last month, advocates for over 5000 Haitians affected by a mass cholera outbreak gave the UN an ultimatum: either the UN agrees to meet or mediate their negligence claim against the UN or they will take the UN to court within 60 days.

Considered the worst cholera epidemic in recent years, over 8300 people have died and another 670,000 Haitians infected with the virus disease since its initial outbreak in October 2011. Before this, there hadn't been a reported cholera case in Haiti for at least half a century. Now the epidemic has reached 'catastrophic' proportions and its eradication is predicted to take over a decade.

Mounting evidence suggests that the cholera outbreak is linked to a South Asian strand of cholera probably introduced by Nepalese troops as part of the UN peacekeeping mission, MINUSTAH.

Reports indicate that poor waste management practices allowed sewerage from a Nepalese base to contaminate the Artibonite River, Haiti's largest river and a water source for drinking, bathing and irrigation for thousands of Haitians. Even the UN's own Independent Expert Panel concluded that the Haitian strand of cholera was a 'perfect match' to an earlier outbreak in Nepal, although they ultimately (and conveniently) found that cause of the outbreak was a 'confluence of circumstances' and not the fault of an identifiable group.

The case reignites ongoing questions about the responsibility and liability of international organisations for harm caused by their operations as well as the inadequacies of accountability mechanisms for peacekeeping missions.

Under both international law and the specific agreement (or 'SOFA') reached with the Haitian Government, the UN has broad immunity. Such immunity is often defended on the basis of 'operational necessity' (ie. it allows UN missions to carry out their humanitarian and peacekeeping functions). The terrible irony, of course, is that the UN is seen to be above the law even while MINUSTAH's mandate is to 'ensure individual accountability for human rights abuses', 'redress for victims' and an 'end to impunity'.

The case against the UN is being run by the Port-au-Prince-based Bureau des Avocats Internationaux with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) in Boston. The basis for the legal action appears to be in private tort of negligence: that the UN failed to conduct proper health screening for troops, failed to maintain proper sanitation facilities, and failed to take immediate action to address the outbreak.

The Haitian petitioners include both people that have lost family members to cholera or have been infected themselves. They want a formal apology, better sanitation and water infrastructure, and compensation to those affected ($50,000 for individuals and $100,000 for families).

The stakes are high: a successful claim may cost the UN billions of dollars and will set an example for future legal actions.

The threatened legal action follows an unsuccessful attempt to use internal UN processes, although 'processes' is something of a misnomer, as there are no official channels to lodge the claim. The SOFA requires the UN to establish a Standing Claims Commission for hearing private law disputes such as negligence claims. But this Commission was never set up.

This has left the cholera victims with few options. In November 2011, they decided to lodge a petition with both MINUSTAH and the UN Secretary-General. Fifteen months later, in February this year, the UN Legal Counsel Office responded by issuing an exceptionally brief letter, rejecting the claims as 'not receivable'. In their response last month, the petitioners rightly complained that the UN gave no proper justification for this rejection, a rejection that appears 'arbitrary', 'self-serving' and a denial of due process to the cholera victims.

So how can we understand the UN's rejection, and why is the UN so reluctant to set up a Standing Claims Commission?

First, in its 60 years of peacekeeping, the UN has never set up such a commission, even though they have support in UN reviews (the UN has set up more informal third-party claim bodies for handling individual claims).

Second, accepting responsibility would have implications for other operations and general UN peacekeeping procedures. Since the end of the Cold War, the UN peacekeeping mandate has expanded enormously, currently deploying over 92,000 uniformed personnel worldwide. It would likely mean procedural reforms, such as better health screening procedures for peacekeepers and facilities management systems.

Third, the UN seems determined to treat the cholera outbreak as a 'political and policy matter', focusing on a national health implementation strategy rather than settling cases of private negligence. Advocates have been quick to point out that UN funding for cholera prevention – to date US$118 million, with a further commitment of $23 million – is only 1% of the funds needed for Haiti's $2.2 billion cholera prevention plan (contrast this with MINUSTAH's 2012-13 budget of US$648 million).

This case also illustrates broader popular discontent about the work and presence of international organisations in Haiti. Last month marked the ninth anniversary of MINUSTAH's deployment, a milestone accompanied by renewed calls for international troops to withdraw. The ongoing earthquake recovery has been plagued by slow aid delivery and unmet promise.

Haiti's development challenges remain varied and acute. Chronic food insecurity is a particular issue, with more than 10% of the population facing hunger in the coming months (a problem partly attributed to liberalisation policies in the early 1990s; see Bill Clinton's apology here).

The IJDH appear to be pursuing the case with confidence: they are calling for New York-based claimants so that they can start the lawsuit in US district courts. Even though they will unfortunately face some tricky – if not insurmountable – legal hurdles, the lawsuit does keep the political issue alive.

Clearly, UN accountability mechanisms are drastically inadequate. Even if the UN successfully relies upon its broad immunity under international and domestic laws, it seems unlikely that vocal calls for compensation will go away (including calls within both the Haitian and US senates). As Haiti prepares for the rainy season amid claims that the UN anti-cholera plan is already failing, the case will be watched not just for its ability to bring some redress for Haitians affected by the cholera epidemic, but also if it shifts some long held international legal principles.

The UN will ultimately be judged both for its ability to alleviate the suffering the cholera epidemic has caused as well as its willingness to subject itself to the accountability principles it espouses. As the Director of the IJDH, Brian Concannon, recently stated, 'Immunity cannot mean impunity'.

You can follow the case here.

Photo by Flickr user United Nations Photo.

Trailer: The Impossible Image

Above, some footage from a new documentary called The Impossible Image, interspersed with commentary from photographer Richard Mosse, who took the unusual step of traveling to the Democratic Republic of Congo to photograph the civil war on infrared film.

I loved this quote from Mosse:

Of primal importance to me is beauty. Beauty is one of the mainlines to make people feel something, it's the sharpest tool in the box. And if you're trying to make people feel something, if you're able to make it beautiful, then they'll sit up and listen. And often if you make something that's derived from human suffering, or from war, if you represent that with beauty, and often it is beautiful, it creates an ethical problem in the viewer's mind.

(Thanks Danielle.)

Thursday links: Nuclear cuts, Iran in Syria, China urbanisation and more

      G8 Summit: Lessons for the G20

      Mike Callaghan is Director of the Lowy Institute's G20 Studies Centre.

      Lough Erne, Northern Ireland, the site of the recent G8 summit, was chosen to inspire leaders, with Northern Ireland demonstrating that even the most intractable problems can be resolved. Were leaders inspired?

      David Cameron said it was a success, but he would say that; he was the chair. Events in Syria dominated, if not hijacked discussions. But leaders will always have to deal with the most pressing current issues, regardless of what was planned. Dealings between President Putin and other leaders on Syria seemed intractable. Yet Cameron said the Syria statement in the G8 communique was 'very strong and purposeful'. Some commentators thought otherwise, calling it the 'blandest' of statements.

      Cameron identified well in advance that his priorities were trade, tax and transparency. This is a lesson for the G20: set priorities. On tax, there was the Lough Erne Declaration, a ten-point plan to tackle global tax evasion. It is a clear, high-level statement of intent – something else for the G20 to think about. The aims in the Declaration include: sharing tax information, harmonising rules to reduce tax evasion, knowing who really owns companies, providing assistance to developing countries to collect tax, and having extractive companies report payments to all governments and make this public.

      Cameron said 'These are very strong commitments that have never been written down in this way before', but the UK Overseas Development Institute was less generous: 'we were promised a bang, but this is a whimper. It is simply a wish list'. And the Tax Justice Network said 'the G8 declaration is all vague commitment and almost nothing of any consequence'.

      Expectations from summits are generally too high, and this is particularly the case for combating global tax evasion, an enormously complex issue. But at least tax dodging is now a global issue and the G8 has turned up the heat. The hard part is to deliver and maintain the heat when the process will take years and not months. Another lesson for the G20.

      Trade was another of Cameron's priorities. The communique says the G8 is 'committed to strengthen the multilateral trading system and securing a WTO deal in December' (at the Bali ministerial meeting). But the focus is totally on bilateral or regional agreements: the EU-US agreement, the Trans Pacific Partnership, the EU-Japan and EU-Canada agreements. Reference is made to welcoming 'trade and economic integration of Russia with some of the countries in the region', a token gesture to mention Russia.

      If, as G8 leaders say, the WTO is ultimately 'the most effective means of reducing trade barriers globally', why not more effort to advance multilateral trade liberalisation? While many benefits may come to the parties in an EU-US agreement, the G8 could hardly be seen as taking a global perspective on trade. This is a challenge for the G20.

      Could more have been achieved at the G8 summit? Who knows. But Cameron has been criticised for not putting in the work. Kirsty McNeill, a former Downing Street adviser, notes that getting a global summit to deliver is 25% showmanship, 25% brinkmanship and 50% long, hard graft on the detail. She notes: 'The issue facing David Cameron is that he both started his preparation for the G8 late and has failed to seize opportunities to build rapport with other leaders'. This is a big lesson for Australia as G20 chair in 2014.

      In the lead-up to the G8 summit there were many references to its relevance compared with the G20. The communique itself highlights the issue of G8 legitimacy when it says 'Our economies together make up around half of the global economy'. What about the other half? At least the G20 accounts for 85% of the global economy. The Guardian noted that:

      ...there is something curiously dated about the G8. Its membership includes Italy but not India; Canada but not China. It is as if delegates from Austria and Turkey were invited to peace conferences between the first and second world wars but not the representatives from the US and the Soviet Union.

      While the G20 is clearly more representative, its shortcomings are being seen as providing the opportunity for the G8 to re-assert itself. To quote The Guardian, 'the G20 has become a giant talking shop'. Gideon Rachman comments, 'It has become apparent that the G20's biggest merit – the size and diversity of its membership – is also its biggest flaw.'

      The G8 cannot deal with global issues without the involvement of 'the rest', particularly the emerging markets. That's where the G20 comes in. But if the G20 is to be relevant, it has to be effective. In many respects, the Lough Erne summit demonstrates that the G8 will put its interests ahead of 'the rest'. This should be an incentive for 'the rest' to ensure that the G20 remains effective and relevant.

      Photo by Flickr user President of the European Council.

      Development links: Population, TB, Samantha Power, poverty and more

      For the first time this week, a new weekly post compiling for you the latest aid and development links from around the world. For comments and link suggestions, email

      Interview: Kishore Mahbubani's great convergence, part II

      Below, part 2 of my interview with Kishore Mahbubani, one of Asia's most prominent world-politics commentators and author of The Great Convergence. Part 1 here.

      SR: You're very critical in The Great Convergence of international institutions such as the UN, WTO and World Bank, which you point out tend to either exclude or give too little weight to emerging economies, particularly those in Asia. This is an imbalance which you argue needs to be corrected. Can you explain why the task of making the key institutions of world order more representative is important? And secondly, how do we get there from here, given that the great powers have such a strong interest in maintaining the status quo?

      KM: We all agree that we live in a global village. All well-ordered villages have village councils. The global village also needs well-run councils. To be successful, a village council must be democratically selected and enjoy the support of the majority of population of the village. This is the nub of the problem faced by key organisations like the UN Security Council, IMF and the World Bank. They are not democratically selected. Nor do they enjoy the support of the majority of the world. Over time, they will lose their legitimacy. This is why they need to be urgently restructured to retain global legitimacy.

      Yet, we must also recognise that international institutions must also acknowledge geopolitical realities. Power is not distributed equally. The only way for international institutions to survive is to entrench the great powers and give them a vested interest in seeing them continue. The League of Nations died because the US had no vested interest to see continue. The UNSC continues because the US and other great powers have veto powers in it. For the veto to retain its relevance, it must be held by today's or tomorrow's great powers and not yesterday's great powers. This is why the UNSC needs to be restructured.

      In short, if we want to reform the global order, we have to take on board the contradictory considerations of greater democratisation and greater weight being given to the great powers of the day. In theory, this cannot be done. In practice, as I have suggested with the 7-7-7 formula for UNSC reform in The Great Convergence, we can find the right formulas to achieve this.

      Tuesday links: Pakistan, Germany, North Korea, Vietnam, Japan and more

      Monday links: Syria, China overcapacity, Thailand, UAVs, green tech and more

      “Our findings contradict the widespread belief that China’s enormous success as an exporting nation derives primarily from low labour costs and deliberate currency undervaluation,” says Usha Haley. “There is enormous overcapacity and no gauging of supply and demand and we found that subsidies account for about 30 per cent of industrial output. Most of the companies we looked at would probably be bankrupt without subsidies.”

      Afghanistan's women: Patchy gains under threat

      Susanne Schmeidl is co-founder of the Afghan NGO, The Liaison Office.

      In 2009 Afghan President Hamid Karzai enacted, by presidential decree, a law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW). The law, which provided broad protections for for women and girls from a range of violent actions including forced prostitution, sex-trafficking and the trading of young girls in the tribal Pashtun custom of Baad, was patchily applied but was still a significant advance for women's rights in Afghanistan.

      In many ways EVAW was a gradual, bottom-up way to provide tools for protecting women's rights that could slowly gain wider acceptance. Last month, however, a female member of Afghanistan's parliament attempted to have the law ratified by the parliament — some alleged, in an effort to build her profile ahead of next year's presidential election. Not all female MPs and women's rights activists were in favour of this move, fearing that it would provoke a conservative backlash against the law.

      This is exactly what happened. When the law came up for debate on 18 May a number of Afghan MPs branded it anti-Islamic. The speaker of the parliament suspended the debate and the law is now being considered by a parliamentary committee. There have also been public protests against the law at Kabul University.

      As has so often been the case in Afghan history, a very public attempt to advance women's rights backfired and is being used by religious fundamentalists to point to the negative influence of the West on the country. Indeed, this case highlights some key issues about Afghanistan and how the international community engages with it on promoting issues such as women's rights.

      First, Afghanistan may be one of the few countries where kings and politicians have been made and undone by struggles relating to the status of women.

      Historically, women's emancipation has been used as the most visible measure of development and change in Afghanistan, and for opponents of women's rights, the level of Western influence in the country. Certainly, since the US-led intervention twelve years ago the advancement of women's rights has been used by NATO as a yardstick and a symbol of progress (often reflected in pictures of smiling girls going to school used by development agencies). Not all this was to the liking of women's activists themselves, especially in rural areas, who often preferred slower, more grass-roots and less publicised change.

      Secondly, what has happened to the EVAW law underlines that the Taliban are not the only opponents of women's rights in Afghanistan. In reality, many mujahideen who have come back to power (and into parliament) since 2001 are only marginally removed from the Taliban in their thinking on social and religious issues.

      This needs to be kept in mind by those who advocate for bringing 'moderate' Taliban into the government. Afghan women in rural and urban areas, as well as other progressive elements in Afghan society, fear that a political settlement between Tailban and conservative elements in government will only see the patchy progress that has been achieved since 2002 sacrificed in the interest of political expediency and deal-making.

      Third, the fact that the EVAW case was largely ignored by the international media bodes ill for the future, although to their credit, some international actors have continued to lobby for the law behind the scenes. What are the chances that anybody will notice or care that the 'moderate' Taliban returning to the political scene will once again demand that beards remain untrimmed and Afghans avoid the dangerous vices of music and smart-phones?

      Is the international community now going to sacrifice the work of the last twelve years and billions of dollars spent dangling a more progressive future in front of Afghans only to wrench it away in the interests of a quick exit?

      Finally, the EVAW law is less about religion than a struggle between the old and younger generations. Few Afghans, whether rural or urban, male or female, really want to go back to how things were. Often it seems that outside observers are far happier to believe that the West failed in Afghanistan because Afghans are too conservative, backward and fundamentalist and that it had less to do with how the international community actually managed the intervention.

      But inconsistent messaging, too much top-down change introduced too quickly (especially without bringing the rural population along), too much political posturing and window dressing; all of these things worked against creating an enabling environment where Afghans could promote change themselves. This might be the ultimate lesson for us to take home from Afghanistan and consider for our engagement in the years to come.

      Photo by Flickr user DVIDSHUB.

      Reader riposte: Roosevelt's five envoys

      Steve Weintz responds to this video of Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove talking at the launch of Michael's new book, Rendezvous with Destiny: How Franklin D Roosevelt and Five Extraordinary Men Took America Into the War and Into the World:

      What a story -- I can't wait to read it! I predict it will develop a groundswell of buzz through the rest of the year, as it gets read and commented upon in Washington, London and elsewhere. It's perfect Steven Spielberg material, too: real drama and huge characters set in an era he loves. Forget assembling the Avengers; what A-list stars would you cast as FDR's Five?