In all the attention rightfully given to the new US administration and Brexit, one could be forgiven for forgetting that other difficult political situations exist around the world. But they do exist, and in the uncertainty that surrounds global governance in 2017, this risk of human suffering is great.
One London School of Economics expert has said:
I think that this year is probably the biggest year for political risk since the end of the World War II.
As relations between the US and Russia, the US and China, the UK and the EU start to recalibrate, no-one quite knows what the many ripple effects might be. Think of bushfire season and the underlying conditions that make a fire much more likely. We are in bushfire season for foreign policy, and the emergency services are missing in action.
Spare a thought for new UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who starts every day with a briefing on world crises and a dwindling budget. He has begged world leaders to make 2017 a year of peace. Already, Guterres is having trouble with getting the chiefs he wants for missions, with the US vetoing the Palestinian candidate for the post of Special Envoy to Libya.
In some cases of political upheaval, power might transfer or rights may be claimed without too much impact on ordinary people’s lives, such at the Velvet Revolution in 1989. But more often political crises have economic and social costs, especially if there is violence or long street protests. Stock markets crash, children suffer interrupted education, health and transport infrastructure are affected, nutrition suffers, expats leave, diaspora stay away, people are displaced over borders, crucial legislation is not passed, and so on. Indian economist Amartya Sen famously made the link between starvation, famine and governance.
So political conflict must be monitored carefully. What will it take to peacefully resolve these current situations in 2017, and what tools does the international community have at its disposal? Do some have the potential to explode into full-blown international armed conflict, and if so, what is to be done?
Some of these countries we are highlighting are the richest on earth. But G20 economies are experiencing a transition through elections, domestic unrest, cross-border activity and/or the impact of violent extremism (for example, France, USA, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, Brazil, India, Indonesia and Turkey).
Some are states that have been the subject of UN Security Council attention for many years due to armed conflict that threatens the maintenance of international peace and security (such as South Sudan, Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, North Korea, Iraq) or where geopolitics have bedevilled the capacity of the Security Council to act through the use of the veto power by one of the Permanent Five members, such as Syria.
Some are what the UN calls “forgotten emergencies”, where the humanitarian need has outstripped resources as the world’s attention has turned elsewhere.
For example, the UN has just scrambled to find US$8 million from the Central Emergency Response Fund for humanitarian assistance for more than 2.2 million people in North Korea, including urgent nutrition assistance for 1.8 million children.
The UN and the government of Iraq estimate they will need US$891 million this year to support 7.3 million Iraqis. One third of the population will require international help in 2017. Up to 3.3 million people have left their homes and thousands are trapped in combat areas.
When crises spill over borders, complications ensue. More than one million displaced Iraqis have sought safety in the Kurdistan region, and with them 250,000 Syrian refugees that Iraq was hosting.
Other countries are facing turbulence because of a new leader or policy, such as the Philippines and Venezuela. There is some talk of Venezuela as a failed state, where the resource rich economy has collapsed with lower oil prices and produced hyperinflation of a whopping 1,660%.
Some are regional crises as well as domestic, such as in Ukraine and Turkey.
In a globalised world, all conflicts and tensions have ripple effects that impact on countries like Australia, with our open economy and mobile population.
What can we do?
So what should Australia do? The Minister for Foreign Affairs has called for consultations on a new Foreign Policy White Paper, so the time is right to reassess our options for dealing with crises elsewhere.
Australia must continue to strengthen the quality and quantum of our humanitarian responses, and continue to invest in the UN’s humanitarian architecture.
But we can and must invest more in preventative diplomacy and mediation. Many scholars and practitioners have argued that Australia should build our negotiation and mediation capacity through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Why should the Nordics dominate mediation in our region? In October 2012, Australia’s parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade recommended that a mediation support unit should be created within the Australian Agency for International Development, a department now amalgamated into DFAT. It may be time to revisit this idea.
We must also try to strengthen international norms around conflict prevention, such as the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.
For an international lawyer, the priority must go to the crime of crimes, genocide. For this reason, the Australian Foreign Minister was right to formally inform Myanmar that the recent UN report on the treatment of Rohingya was disturbing enough to require a UN commission of inquiry into human rights abuses.
While we deal with crises, we still need to think long-term about the rules and structures of our global system. Prince Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, gave a rousing speech this week in the US about the need to uphold the global rules that are under threat through populist regimes:
We need – all of us – to defend international law – international refugee law, international human rights law, international humanitarian law, international criminal law. For they – and the institutions that uphold them – are the very distillation and sum of human experience. They are not, as some would have you believe, the outcome of post-war bureaucratic doodling. They were woven together from the screams of millions who died violently or suffered horribly over many centuries. We know very well what will happen, should they be dissolved.
Click here for the analysis of the countries we have highlighted.