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Fanack Debate – The Middle East: Testing the Boundaries

United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon, Sigrid Kaag
United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon, Sigrid Kaag

The Middle East is in a deep crisis and there is no easy way out. The region is facing a breakdown of power structures and continuous escalation of violence. Meanwhile, the international community remains divided. Where do we go from here and how can we understand the current situation better? This was the theme of an event organized by Fanack Chronicle for the Middle East and North-Africa and hosted by The Hague Institute for Global Justice on 26 May 2015.

The event opened with a keynote speech by the United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon, Sigrid Kaag, who spoke onThe UN in the Middle East: Reflections on Syria and Lebanon. With her 30-year experience of working and living in the region, Special Coordinator Kaag identified the salient challenges facing the region – some obvious; others beneath the radar. She reflected on issues including youth unemployment, rising emigration and the inability of the international community to deal with the outbreak of violence.

Perhaps, Ms. Kaag suggested, part of our collective frustration stems from a tendency to expect too much from the international community. Should we adjust our expectations and accept that there is a gap between conventional international instruments and the type of warfare with which we are now dealing? One example she gave in this context was the ineffectiveness of International Humanitarian Law. The Special Coordinator underlined that “ISIS is not interested in the Geneva Conventions”.

Special Coordinator Kaag also discussed the role of the United Nations in the region. In her view, the World Organisation seems unable to do much more than provide continued humanitarian assistance. The United Nations Security Council remains divided and the crises in Syria and Ukraine have worsened relations between its permanent members. Ms. Kaag linked the proliferation of special envoy roles with the fact that there is often no peace to keep.. Due to changes in warfare, classical peace missions are no longer adequate. In her view courage is needed to promote the Responsibility To Protect (R2P) when applicable. In this context Special Coordinator Kaag said: “We must promise less and do more. The credibility of the international community is at stake.”

At the same time she argued that we must include all actors, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, in our efforts to bring peace. The Special Coordinator furthermore emphasized that the role of civil society remains crucial in a world that is significantly changing. Often it is clear what needs to happen but the difficulty lies in implementation.

Moreover according to Ms. Kaag, we rarely focus on the root causes that have led to the outbreak of violence in the Middle East. The Special Coordinator argued that there are very few volunteer terrorists – some 90 % are terrorists out of total despair. She pointed towards youth unemployment and the lack of future perspectives together with extensive abuse of human rights. Additionally she found it very understandable that migration numbers are so high. “How can we blame people for wanting to come to Europe understanding the environment they are fleeing from?”

Moderator Robert van de Roer referred to the Special Coordinator’s speech as a devastating account of undeniable facts. Under his guidance a panel of four experts continued discussing the Middle East: Testing the Boundaries. The panelists focused on the question of whether War is the New Norm in the Middle East.

Is war the new norm in the Middle East?

This issue was tackled by the panelists in different ways. Generally the panelists recognized that the Middle East is in a severely violent phase of its history. Journalist Paul Brill listed a history of violent conflicts in the Middle East. Based on this list he argued that war is an old norm yet what’s new about it at the current time is that war is eroding the wider regional order.

The panelists agree that a quick fix is not possible. The former Dutch Special Envoy to Syria Marcel Kurpershoek emphasized the importance of including both Arab and non-Arab leaders in dealing with the security crisis of the Middle East. In his view the crisis in the Middle East will remain unsolved without Iran and Turkey.

As for the root causes of the conflict, most panelists – together with Ms. Kaag – referred to the continuous abuse of human rights in the region, which had long been ignored..

Dialogue with the audience focused in part on the problematic position of European countries in dealing with the Middle East. Panelists agreed to a certain extent with the critique that the policies of European countries exhibit double standards. However journalist Paul Brill warned that Arab leadership and acknowledgement of agency is sometimes lacking in the Middle East. He argued that people from the region should ask themselves: “How do we influence our own faith in the region?”

Professor Joris Voorhoeve argued that we should not think about whether war is the new norm. Instead we should ask what we can do about it in such a way that massive human suffering can be avoided. From his perspective this is only possible if we focus on creating order first. “Right now it is a military matter. When there is order, justice and human rights will follow.”

With regard to the position of the United States, Dutch diplomat Robert Serry, who has been involved in the negotiations for the Middle East peace process, argued that the position of President Obama was difficult from the beginning. However the US has also invested time and effort in bringing peace to the region. In this context, the former Special Envoy to Syria concluded that the future of the region is tied to the outcome of the nuclear negotiations with Iran. On 30 June 2015 we will have a better idea of the direction the region is heading.

Pictures by Hans Tak