New Age Islam Edit Bureau
30 September 2015
• Saudi Arabia, the US and the Middle East
S P Seth
• Reforming the United Nations
• Lessons from Kasur
Saudi Arabia, the US and the Middle East
S P Seth
September 30, 2015
The backdrop to Saudi King Salman’s recent US visit was largely a pervasive fear of Iranian regional ambitions, augmented due to the US nuclear deal with Iran. This meant, as far as Riyadh was concerned, that the US was wavering in its absolute commitment to contain, prevent and stop Tehran from destabilising the region to establish its own regional primacy. Until the nuclear deal, which envisages the withdrawal of international economic sanctions against Iran in return for serious curbs on its nuclear ambitions, Iran was increasingly becoming an economic basket case with not much capacity to play a serious regional role, though it still managed to scare some of its Arab neighbours. And that is how Saudi Arabia, its Gulf allies and Israel, for its own reasons, wanted things to continue, hoping that, over time, this would seriously weaken Iran’s clerical regime and/or bring it down, thus ensuring the stability of the Saudi-led and overseen conservative political order in the Middle East. Having failed to prevent the US-Iran nuclear deal, Riyadh sought to show its displeasure in all sorts of ways, including an earlier absence by King Salman at an Obama-hosted Gulf summit in the US designed to assure its Middle Eastern allies that its regional strategy remained essentially unchanged despite the nuclear deal with Iran. Which is that they will have a virtual US defence umbrella, including all sorts of advanced weaponry the US would continue to sell to refurbish their defence.
What sort of threat(s) Iran poses is generally left vague apart from a general sense that Iran is somehow a malevolent regional force out to destabilise/destroy its Sunni Arab neighbours. And its evil designs are seen in Syria, its support and arming of Hezbollah and in Yemen where Saudi Arabia and its allied forces are bombing the Houthis, said to be establishing their control over the country with Iranian support. And, of course, Iran is also supposed to exercise influence and control over Iraq’s Shia regime. In all these places, though, the so-called Iranian proxies are in a precarious situation, with the US largely working against them.
The one possible area of strategic convergence between Iran and the US is expanding Islamic State (IS) control in parts of Iraq and Syria. The US regards IS as a greater danger ideologically, politically and strategically than other scattered jihadi elements in the region. Its appeal to many disaffected Muslim youth, particularly in the west, is quite fetching as seen in their recruitment to the cause at home and on the ground in the region. And, so far, despite massive US aerial targeting of IS assets in Iraq and Syria, and the engagement of the US-trained and equipped Iraqi army against the enemy, IS seems to be doing pretty well. The US objective to degrade, destroy and ultimately annihilate IS does not appear to have made much headway, if at all. In the midst of it, Iranian trained and equipped Shia militias seem to be the only effective counterforce with real potential to push back IS. And the US is quite supportive, if not encouraging, of the Iranian role. This makes the Saudis jittery about the future strategic evolution of the region where Iran might come to have an influence on US regional policy.
Even though the Saudis recognise at some level that IS also has the Saudi monarchy as its target, as seen in a series of recent explosions in the kingdom, they tend to gloss over this by regarding Iran as a bigger threat. During his recent US visit, King Salman seems to have been reassured, to the extent possible, that the US does not have any short or medium term plans to make Iran into a strategic friend/ally. And it is showing this by selling huge amounts of weaponry to Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies. In 2014 alone, Saudi Arabia, now the world’s biggest arms buyer, reportedly spent $ 80 billion on arms’ purchases, much of it from the US. And the UAE spent $ 23 billion on arms’ purchases. The Gulf States are awash with sophisticated foreign arms, most of them from the US with trainers, consultants and any number of experts and handlers hired to do the job if and when necessary.
With almost no real strategic road map to bring about stability and security to the region, such seemingly ad hoc deployment of military resources is a further invitation to disaster in a region that is already on the brink in more than one way. And Riyadh still feels threatened and worried about some perceived change in the US-Middle East policy. Bruce Riedel, a US strategic analyst at the Brookings Institution, has this to say of Saudi bombing of Yemen, where they fear the Houthis are engaged in a proxy war for Iran: “What the Saudis really want from Obama is unquestioning and complete political support for their war and its enormous carnage. [And] They have it — and the Yemeni people are paying for the Iran nuclear deal.” The US needs to go out of its way to assure the Saudis that its overall Middle Eastern strategy of supporting their friends and allies remains uncompromised by the US-Iran nuclear deal.
And this in a way might encourage Saudi Arabia to further push the limits of its regional primacy. As Iraqi Prime Minister (PM) Haider al-Abadi reportedly told reporters in Washington in April 2015, “The dangerous thing is, we do not know what the Saudis want to do [after Yemen]. Is Iraq within their radar? That is very, very dangerous; the idea that you intervene in another state, unprovoked, just for regional ambition is wrong.” He added, “Saddam did it before; see what it has done to the country.”
In other words, the Middle Eastern situation is becoming messier and messier with not much thought, if any, being paid to exploring political solutions. And an important reason for this is the proliferation and easy access to weapons all around for state actors from the US and other external powers, and to jihadis of all sorts from their regional benefactors and promoters. IS helps itself to these weapons and treasures by raiding and capturing such a vast array of weapons available all around. No wonder there is no prospect anywhere in sight for any sort of political solution. And here we have not even dealt with the increasingly dangerous situation in Syria and Turkey’s no-holds barred offensive against the Kurds.
The writer is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Reforming the United Nations
IT is indeed a seminal year for the United Nations as world leaders assemble for the annual General Assembly session celebrating the 70th anniversary of the birth of the world body. What makes the current session more significant is not its disappointing legacy on conflict resolution, but its new Sustainable Development Agenda (SDA).
After years of intense and painstaking deliberations, the member-nations have reached an agreement on 17 development goals — including the elimination of extreme poverty and hunger — to be achieved by 2030. It covers a wide range of political and socio-economic issues, including poverty, hunger, gender equality, industrialisation, sustainable development, full employment, human rights, quality education, climate change and sustainable energy for all.
Surely, it is a highly ambitious agenda that promises to transform the lives of billions of people; its success will depend largely not only on international efforts but also on the commitment of individual states. It may also cost trillions of dollars each year to achieve the minimum targets. Nevertheless, the SDA highlights the growing UN focus on development and humanitarian causes and greater international resolve to address issues related to poverty, gender inequality and education.
It was a moment of great pride to see Malala Yousafzai sharing the stage with other world luminaries at New York’s Central Park Global Citizen event to launch the SDA that replaces the Millennium Development Goals. Although a UN report claimed the MDGs had cut by half the number of people living in extreme poverty, Pakistan, unfortunately, is among the countries that have fallen far behind. It has not even come close to achieving any of the millennium targets.
The structure of the UN Security Council does not reflect the diversity of the present member-states.
There is absolutely no realisation in Pakistan on the importance of these issues relating to investing in human development. Poverty, education and gender inequality are still the lowest items on the priority list of the government. That gives little confidence to a country being able to achieve those goals in the stipulated time frame.
Not to forget that the post-2015 agenda has been launched in a very different setting — one of greater inequality, of more damaging environmental degradation linked to natural disasters and other crises, and of more widespread and brutal conflicts, to name a few examples. Therefore, this new agenda will require changing old ways of doing business and embracing innovations.
Another significant event on the sidelines of the 70th General Assembly session was a high-level roundtable on South-South cooperation with the participation of 20 countries including Pakistan. The forum led by China certainly scaled up the long lost cause of cooperation among developing countries that should also help in achieving the SDA goals.
South-South cooperation assumes greater significance as global financial and political rebalancing takes place. It is apparent that power and influence are shifting from the US-led transatlantic order towards Asia and Latin America. Therefore, a major question revolves around how the new system can be managed and how successfully and quickly the newly empowered big players of the Global South manage their transformation from marginal actors to major stakeholders in the new order.
This also raises questions about the relevance of the world body in dealing with the new challenges confronting global security. The world has changed enormously since the creation of the UN in 1945. Despite the fact that the number of UN members has quadrupled to 193 states, the Security Council that virtually controls the decision-making still comprises the victors of the Second World War. Its structure does not reflect the diversity of the present member-states. Surely it is the biggest failure of the UN, when faced with some of the most critical issues, leaving it open to allegations of being a powerless body.
While not denying the role of the UN in preventing many crises threatening world peace, its failure to protect and defend the interests of the weaker and smaller nations has become much more apparent. Some recent events have exposed its limitations in dealing with conflicts involving big powers, particularly the United States. For that reason, many sceptics see the UN as having been reduced to a debating forum, not a problem-solving entity. Too often has it demonstrated a failure to tackle urgent collective action on problems due to its structural inability and inertia.
The much-delayed critical structural and procedural reforms further highlight the question of its legitimacy and performance. The crisis of confidence in the world body as a symbol of multilateralism has intensified with Washington’s unilateral US military action in Iraq and the inability of the UN to play a more active role in the Middle East conflict, especially in the Syrian civil war.
It is becoming increasingly obvious that the United Nations in its present form does not meet the requirements of a truly representative multilateral organisation in a fast-changing world that is confronted with complex security challenges. Over the past seven decades, the UN has survived various phases — from the bipolarity of the Cold War period to a unipolar order in 1990s and now to the transition to a sort of fragmented world order.
Most attention on structural reform in the UN system has been focused on the Security Council. Surely the Council in its present shape is unrepresentative in both permanent and elected membership, unaccountable to the General Assembly, and not subject to judicial oversight. But there is a need for much deeper reforms to make the UN more relevant and effective in fulfilling its primary responsibility of maintaining international peace and security.
Therefore, it is not only imperative to restructure the Security Council that reflects today’s power balance, but also to make the United Nations more representative of a broader constituency of interests. Surely the Security Council is the most important UN organ and its geopolitical centre of gravity. But its expanded powers and reach have steadily reduced the role and relevance of the General Assembly which should be the major source of its authority and legitimacy.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Lessons from Kasur
“DEATH is a better option,” said one of the survivors of the child pornography ring that was exposed this summer in the Punjab town of Kasur. He made the statement while speaking to a journalist who was doing a follow-up story on the affected children.
Like hundreds of others, he was tortured and filmed while performing sexual acts. Then like many of the other children and their families, he was blackmailed so that he would not go to the authorities. Now, he and several others are alive, but severely depressed, unable to see a path ahead.
Child survivors of sexual abuse face an uphill battle even in countries where there are many resources to help them. In Pakistan the cumulative burden of shame along with a lack of assistance and acceptance dooms them even further. Immediately after the Kasur story broke, it seemed that positive steps would lead to some accountability and action. A fact-finding mission sent by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan confirmed that a heinous crime had been committed against the children. Efforts to cover it up by alleging a land dispute between various families, the Commission report found, were entirely made up and deceptive.
The scope of the crime was huge, and hundreds of children were affected. With media attention focused on the sordid case, politicians made promises and many NGOs tried to collect resources for the affected children. However, after the passage of some months, the media spotlight predictably shifted from Kasur; the victims, still ashamed and still terrified, have been left largely to fend for themselves.
An informed child, a child who knows about protecting his or her body, is a child less likely to be victimised.
That is the condition of those who have already been harmed, whose lives will now carry the onerous burden of abuse forever. The case of those who are future victims, however, is just as bleak. Since the Kasur case came to light, few efforts have been made at the national level to create awareness and educate children about child sexual abuse. No new legislation on the issue is pending, and no new curriculum measures are being considered to take the matter seriously.
The efforts that do exist are largely piecemeal, taken by one or the other NGO or concerned group of citizens. The reports, the seminars, the discussions that took place in the immediate aftermath of Kasur have, in sum, failed to make an impact and motivate a change in the way Pakistani society deals with the issue of child sexual abuse.
The consequence, of course, is that all Pakistani children are currently extremely vulnerable to being sexually exploited. The documentary in which one of the Kasur survivors wishes for death also includes an interview with a man who works at a truck stop. Truckers, he unabashedly tells the camera, often share their beds with little boys. The children’s job is to satisfy these men sexually so that they can have a place to sleep. The aftermath of Kasur was full of such reports, yet no groundswell of public outrage exists to eradicate the exploitative practice that is undoubtedly going on at truck stops all over the country. Despite being exposed, the truck stop network of abuse and exploitation continues to function without fear.
There is no doubt that the virtual economy perpetuated by child pornographers makes the task of catching and punishing them difficult. There are millions of poor children in Pakistan, their bodies easy prey for those looking to make a buck from the worst kind of exploitation. When consumers of child pornography are caught and convicted in the developed world, in Canada, the United States or Western Europe, troves of child pornography often made in poor countries is found in their possession. The suppliers in Pakistan, Thailand or wherever, are, however, untouched by those busts, able to continue production and dissemination, creating new victims.
One effective way of protecting children from sexual abuse is to teach them about protecting their bodies and insist that grown-ups who tell them to keep secrets about their bodies are not their friends. When children are not educated about what constitutes improper physical contact they have no means of articulating what may be happening to them or to tell an adult about it. A child who knows about physical and personal boundaries, an educated child, is not as easily victimised as a child who has no ability to describe the conditions of their victimisation or is afraid to do so because they have been frightened into keeping abuse a secret.
If all of Pakistan’s schoolchildren are educated, taught to expect privacy and protection of their bodies, they are more protected from the paedophiles who want to victimise them.
A cursory look at those convicted on charges of child pornography in Western countries reveals that many paedophiles purposely seek professions that provide them access to children. Teachers, coaches and other school officials are often among these, eager to gain the trust of parents and then exploit the children that are entrusted to their care. Not only is there little awareness of this in Pakistan, there are almost no screening mechanisms that would exclude paedophiles from professions where they have easy access to children. With this context, it is up to parents to ensure that their children are not being exploited as a consequence of societal blindness to the issue.
Children are innocent and childhood a time of wonder and trust. It is repugnant, therefore, to even think about the sordid actions and intentions of those who prey on children. The necessity of teaching and talking to children about child sexual abuse is indeed an indictment of the cruelty of the world that we inhabit.
If Kasur and the suffering of children there can teach Pakistani parents anything, it should be that an informed child, a child who knows about protecting his or her body, is a child less likely to be victimised. The lesson then is a simple one: teach your children, talk to them, and perhaps then you will be able to protect them.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.