Why do autocracies matter, and what can we do?

Why do autocracies matter, and what can we do?


Mbutu. US interventions in state building

From Chile to DR Congo, from Iran to Somalia and beyond, the United States and its allies have long sought to support statebuilding in closed-order countries.

The concentration of power in the hands of a limited elite, it is argued, results in governments that are unable to discharge their basic functions. These countries are at a high risk of internal conflict, sectarian violence and some of the worst human rights abuses. While it is the citizens of these countries that suffer the most, many of these states as fragile- if not already failed -are permissive environments for the growth of extremist groups that use violence globally in the pursuit of their aims. They can be sources of regional instability, creating large-scale displacements of people, distorting regional economies and effecting power balances. These states also suck up international attention and assistance and divert it away from countries where the government is willing to be responsive to and invest in its people.

Until they no longer hold our attention.

The result of our support in statebuilding in these countries has been varied; useless at best, and counterproductive at worst. We’ve had long term military and development investments in countries that have since disintegrated into or are on the brink of civil war. At other times, we’ve propped up the wrong rulers, in the wrong ways, in our efforts to ensure stability.

What are our range of options for supporting statebuilding in these places?

Professor Stephen Krasner of Stanford releases a new Atlantic Council strategy paper tomorrow. I’ll be joining Professor Krasner and Ambassador James B. Cunningham, talking about why statebuilding in these countries matters and how we can employ a more effective approach.

Join us tomorrow in person, or click here for live streaming of the discussion.

What happens when refugees are forced to go home?


In the latest turn in the refugee crisis prior to today’s EU-Turkey summit in Brussels, Macedonian border officials have started profiling arrivals (in addition to beating them) and denying entry to those they deem not to come from war –afflicted cities and provinces. They are operating, allegedly, without authority, and outside international law.

Limiting intake seems logical on the face of it. But have you ever wondered what happens when migrants are forced to return  to the war and destruction they were fleeing?

We met with officials, local groups and spoke with refugee reintegration organizations in Afghanistan, where the number of ‘forced returns’ grew rapidly in the past year. We found that Afghan forced returnees face food insecurity and exposure to ongoing violence, and are at increased risk of joining insurgent groups.  Forcing migrants back into wars is simply not a solution, and can fuel further insecurity and displacement.

Continue reading What happens when refugees are forced to go home?

Democratic Presidential Debate: Where do they stand on Syria and other foreign policy issues?

It was a warm evening as I headed out last night to watch the Democratic presidential debate, where candidates pit their positions and wit against each other. The restaurant in Dupont Circle was full of young couples on a quintessential DC date, groups of work friends and lone politicos. “I’ll take you to a typical DC party” Melanie, working for Care International, had told her colleague Dotti from Gap, who was visiting from San Francisco. I sat at a long table opposite my new friends for the evening, drinking happy hour cabernet while the debate opened to an eager crowd in a party-like atmosphere.

A couple of business cards made their way down to me from the other end of the table. The cards had several ‘bingo’ words penned on them; “You have to drink whenever they mention Benghazi” I was instructed.

I bet Hillary wished she could do the same.

Unsurprisingly, Benghazi was mentioned a few times. Worryingly, there was little substantive debate about the US in Syria, Iraq, or in Afghanistan. So where do the democrat presidential candidates stand on Syria and other foreign policy issues? Here’s a summary of what they mentioned (and didn’t mention) during the debate concerning Syria, US involvement in wars, threats to national security, Afghanistan and global inequalities:


Presidential debate

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Solution or Part of the Problem? External Processing of Refugees

Overwhelmed by the need to process quickly the growing numbers of asylum-seekers, the USA and European countries have expressed an interest in ‘external processing’ of asylum claims.  This would involve establishing asylum processing centres in other countries, either in third party countries that are transit destinations for refugees- such north Africa for those headed to Europe.  Or as the United States has already started to do, process claims in sending countries such as El Salvador and Honduras, from which the majority of unaccompanied minors entering the US originate their journeys.

External  processing, its claimed, can help provide safe pathways for asylum seekers to reach their target countries, avoiding the hazardous journeys they often take, as well enabling their claims to be processed more quickly and at a smaller cost. The Australian experience, however, provides us a disturbing warning of the ways in which external processing can fall foul of a state’s humanitarian and human rights obligations and add further injury to those who are seeking refuge from violence and persecution.

External processing of Refugees can compromise humanitarian and human rights obligations

Continue reading Solution or Part of the Problem? External Processing of Refugees

The monsters we feared, we have become

By Judith Reen

With the US and countries in Europe struggling to develop appropriate policy responses to the refugee crisis Judith Reen looks at the approach of another country of immigrants –Australia- in dealing with the growing numbers of the desperate and war-weary.

In Part 2 next week, Judith provides a first hand, harrowing account of the detention center on Nauru set up by the Australian government, where asylum seekers- including children- wait indefinitely in deplorable conditions while their claims are being processed. In tomorrow’s post, as part of our Special Series on Refugees and Immigration, we’ll look more closely at the human rights impacts of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers in isolating them indefinitely on remote Pacific islands.


Part 1

Australia has led the world in current refugee crisis- in a race to the bottom on conversations around the treatment of asylum seekers. The dialogue in Canberra could not be more toxic or politicised and the resulting xenophobia is the fruit of ten years of toil convincing Aussies that they are under siege. Our sovereign borders, we’re told, are under threat and asylum seekers deserve our derision and contempt.

A hard-line response is necessary.

And that’s what they get.

Continue reading The monsters we feared, we have become

Preaching to the Unconverted? What will Pope Francis say on the refugee crisis and immigration reform?

The jovial happy-chap demeanor of Pope Francis barely hides the skilled orator who packs a hard-hitting intellectual and social punch.Having steered away from head-on ‘culture-clash’ statements on issues such as abortion and contraception, Pope Francis is focusing on pushing out the Vatican’s informed position on a range of current, social challenges. Some of these, however, are no less controversial in today’s America: climate change and immigration, for example. But he is still likely to tackle these issues in his usual truth-to-power style.

We look at what Pope Francis is likely to say about the refugee crisis and immigration reform during his US visit.




Continue reading Preaching to the Unconverted? What will Pope Francis say on the refugee crisis and immigration reform?

Special Series: What else we need to know about the refugee and immigration crisis

We’re back after a long summer break!

And to kick off the year, this week we’ll be featuring a Special Series on Refugees and Immigration, including a look at some of the issues not covered in the mainstream media, concerning what UNHCR has called a ‘Refugee Emergency’, and the global debate on immigration.

Today’s post looks at what Pope Francis  is likely to say about the refugee crisis and immigration reform during his visit to the United States this week. We look at his existing positions and proposals on these issues and ask whether he is likely to have an impact.


Later in the week we’ll look closely at ‘external processing’ of refugees, an option  that both the USA and European countries have been considering given the increasing numbers of asylum-seekers. We have an exclusive first-hand account and photos of the situation of child refugees held indefinitely in the Nauru and Manus Island detention centers while their asylum claims are being processed.

In the third post in the series, in collaboration with the Oxford Human Rights Law Hub we explore the human rights ramifications of the external processing of refugees based on the Australian experience.

In our final post of the series we’ll explore how the current refugee crisis has changed the widespread discrimminatory attitudes towards immigrants and ask whether this is likely to last, and how its impacting policy.

Look out for the original artwork, including sketches from our resident artists Max B and Jason Crislip, as well as pictures from DC artist Maryanne Pollock‘s intergenerational project on Refugees and Shelter with the University of Maryland and Barrie School, DC.