Archive for Democracy Building

Putin’s Calculus in Ukraine

By David L. Phillips, Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights, Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights


Crimea is more than a flash-point for conflict between Ukraine and Russia. War between Ukraine and Russia has potential regional and global implications. While supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty, the Obama administration must be careful not to escalate tensions. It may be possible, however, to change President Vladimir Putin’s calculus through a combination of carrots and sticks.

Events are fast-moving and volatile. On Friday, Russian Special Forces and helicopter gunships invaded Crimea. They closed the main airport and set-up check-points, seizing key buildings. On Saturday, the Russian Duma authorized the deployment of armed forces to Crimea, which has a majority ethnic Russian population. By Sunday, 6,000 Russian forces established complete control of Crimea.

Russia may escalate the conflict by deploying forces in the ethnic Russian belt between Donetsk and Khirkiv. Will Putin take steps to “liberate” other ethnic Russian territories in the so-called near abroad? Pro-Western countries in Baltic States, Georgia, and Moldova should beware.

Map of Ukraine from NBC News

Map of Ukraine from NBC News

Russia’s invasion of Crimea was no surprise. Moscow telegraphed its intentions, the same way it did before invading Georgia in 2008. When Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown, Russia launched military exercises on the Russia-Ukraine border, scrambled war planes, and put tens of thousands of troops on alert. Dmitry Medvedev warned that the turmoil in Ukraine “posed a real threat to our interests and to our citizens’ lives and health.”

Obama waited until after Russia’s invasion to warn of “costs.” Secretary John Kerry declared that Russia’s actions were “unacceptable.” U.S. protests were too non-descript, and too late. The time to warn Putin was before he deployed Special Forces.

Putin is in complete control of the situation. He delights in making a mockery of Obama’s righteous indignation, exposing the hypocrisy and weakness of the West. After Obama’s wobbly warning to Syria, Putin knows that Obama will never go to war over Ukraine.

At this stage, Obama must avoid overheated rhetoric. Idle threats serve no purpose. The United States should focus on keeping the conflict from escalating. Immediate measures are also needed to stabilize Ukraine.

When Kerry goes to Kiev on Tuesday, he should offer specific types of economic, security and political assistance. Even a token loan guarantee will demonstrate support for the interim government.

Huge sums will be needed to pull Ukraine’s economy from the brink. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) should intensify efforts to assemble a $20 billion rescue package. Details can be finalized after Ukraine’s new government is elected. Meanwhile, the IMF should work with the interim government to finalize loan terms, including structural adjustments, austerity spending, and reduced energy subsidies. Transparency and anti-corruption measures will be needed.

Ukraine also suffers a democracy deficit. Kerry can announce U.S. support for consolidating Ukraine’s democratic transition, which focuses on civil society not just state-building. Support for judicial and electoral reform is also a priority.

Assistance should not only target western Ukraine. Ethnic Russian regions in the east should also benefit.

The NATO-Ukraine Commission languished during Yanukovych’s administration. The North Atlantic Council (NAC) should accelerate Ukraine’s NATO membership by revitalizing its Membership Action Plan. Meanwhile, NATO can show solidarity by conducting joint military training exercises with Ukrainian armed forces; NATO can also extend its combat air patrol to Ukraine. NATO monitors could be sent to the Russia-Ukraine border. The U.S. can strengthen bilateral security cooperation by dispatching the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Kiev to review Ukraine’s military capacity in the context of U.S.-Ukraine National Defense Talks.

Trans-Atlantic cooperation is critical. The EU has given vague assurances. Brussels should be more specific about ways its European Neighborhood Policy can support Ukraine’s economic and political stabilization. It should affirm its commitment to an Association Agreement and establish visa liberalization for Ukrainians traveling to EU member states.

The West must establish clear red lines with Russia. A U.S. envoy should visit Moscow to:

  • Demand that Russian forces return to their bases in Crimea, abiding by current lease terms for the Naval Air Station in Sevastapol.
  • Emphasize that sending additional forces to Crimea or other parts of Ukraine would represent a serious escalation.
  • Warn against deploying new weapons systems in Crimea, including surface to air missiles.

The envoy should also warn Russia not to make the mistake of establishing diplomatic relations with Crimea. Russia signed “Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance Agreements” with Abkhazia and South Ossetia on September 17, 2008. The agreements violated cease-fire terms ending the Russia-Georgia war, perpetuating hostilities.

The Obama administration has suspended preparatory discussions for the G-8’s upcoming meeting in Russia. If Russia’s expands its aggression, can G-8 members attend the Sochi summit in June? Sending a signal is important, but so is maintaining channels of communication.

Obama has threatened economic isolation. The Magnitsky Act can be applied to hold individual Russian officials accountable through travel bans and freezing their assets. In addition, the Congress could pass legislation requiring an annual review of Russia’s Most Favored Nation trade status. Obama could suspend U.S.-Russia bilateral trade talks.

The EU can do its part by suspending negotiations with Russia on the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. It could revoke the visa facilitation regime for Russia. The EU can also impose sanctions on Russian businesses investing in Crimea.

A carrots and sticks strategy must include positive incentives.

Kiev should pledge not to use force against Crimea. It should avoid actions that Russia might use to justify its aggression.

The NAC should issue a statement that it will not take military action over Crimea.

The Ukrainian government should reiterate its commitment to the current lease allowing Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Sevastapol until 2042.

The Ukrainian parliament can strengthen the protection and promotion of minority rights. It can recommit to Crimea’s autonomy, identifying new ways to enhance local control over governance, economic affairs, natural resources, and cultural rights.

Under UN auspices, a Peace Implementation Council (PIC) could be established to build confidence between Russia and Ukraine, including Crimea. The PIC could include working groups on security and humanitarian issues, as well as an Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism to prevent disputes along the administrative boundary lines from escalating. A hot line connecting Russia and Ukrainian defense officials should be established.

The international community could broker a declaration on the non-use of force between Russia and Ukraine, with Crimean representatives as signatories. The declaration is not a treaty between sovereigns; therefore, it would not represent any recognition of Crimea.

Russia needs a face-saving way out of the current crisis. It is unlikely that Russia wants to annex Crimea. It has enough problems within its current borders. Besides, 12 percent of Crimeans are Muslim Tatars. They could radicalized and join forces with Muslims extremists in Dagestan and Chechnya.

Rather than push for elections on May 25, a slower timetable could take some stress out of Ukraine’s transition. Yanukovych, opposition leaders, and a Russian envoy signed an EU-mediated accord on February 21 calling for presidential elections by the end of 2014.

The Obama administration also needs a way out. It needs to defuse the conflict with Russia, and discourage Putin from aggressing elsewhere. America’s prestige is at stake. Recent events in Ukraine highlight America’s downward trajectory from the unipolar moment of the early 1990s.

It may appear that the West has few options, but it has many diplomatic tools at its disposal. If Russia is the problem, it must also be part of the solution.

David L. Phillips

David L. Phillips


Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He is a former senior adviser and foreign affairs expert to the administrations of President Clinton, Bush and Obama.

This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post on March 3, 2014


Obama in Burma: Rewarding Cosmetic Changes?

By Hal Levy, undergraduate student at Columbia University

The White House moved with uncharacteristic speed to announce a surprising foreign policy initiative two days after President Obama’s reelection.  He was going to Burma and it was happening right now, less than two weeks after the votes were counted, and because he decided that everything would happen so quickly it was far too late to haggle over his itinerary, which by the way was already in place.  “Why scrutinize this?” was the implicit message to human rights activists, “because we don’t want your input this time.”

However, this landmark engagement with the current Burmese regime warrants scrutiny and at the very least revision if it is to go forward.  Burma is finally opening to Western investment, but Obama must not abandon America’s responsibility to protect potential Burmese workers in favor of geopolitical games and economic opportunity.  Fraudulent elections held in 2010 transferred power to a mixture of civilians and military-appointed candidates in name only, while President Thein Sein and the military establishment retained near-total control of the country.  The concern that has been reluctantly expressed by activists – including a silenced Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – is that Obama’s visit is really a cynical approach to ending successful sanctions merely in exchange for recent reforms in Burma that may be cosmetic and temporary.  While dialogue is generally good in any situation, a visit from Obama (and on the heels of the high-profile visit from Secretary Clinton in December 2011) is a rebuke to the international human rights community, and one that has startled even more “realist” domestic observers.

It is true that reformers in the Burmese government have fought military hardliners to break Burma’s long isolation from the West, and are certainly due for increased international backing.  However, the U.S. has so far managed to provide appropriately escalating support with the appointment of a new ambassador and fewer trade restrictions.  A visit from the President is a great deal stronger than the current framework of “action for action” and risks delivering a message to the Burmese government that it is safe to stop their welcome but incremental progress on reform.

Will this be seen as rewarding a democratic transition, or the mere start of a client state relationship?  White House human rights advisor Samantha Power wrote the day after news of the trip broke that it will help the administration monitor “continued progress on the road to democracy.”  Despite this, Human Rights Watch “think[s] that the visit is premature,” with their puzzled Asia director Phil Robertson quoted in a Los Angeles Times article asking, “what’s actually the rush?”

Much less information about Burma filters out to the West than that of more prominent human rights violators, and so the U.S. government is privy to more details than the public.  And the idea of Burmese engagement as a credible demonstration of Western-supported democratization for North Korea is perhaps the most appealing aspect of the trip.  Yet for Obama, it is indisputably irresponsible to engage Thein Sein without making meaningful assurances on the part of the U.S. to protect human rights in Burma.

While time may prove otherwise, it appears Obama’s visit is not the beginning of massive civic change but rather presages a freeze on rights (a conciliatory amnesty declaration in advance of Obama’s visit was revised to exclude political prisoners) and the expansion of sweatshop labor for Burma’s massive underemployed population.  At a minimum, all statements that the White House releases about President Obama’s time in Burma should make clear that the minimum standards for Burma’s development do not begin at the current point, and that the end of U.S. sanction efforts are conditioned on the continuance of reforms.

Since Obama has inexorably set himself on the path to Burma, he should at least reverse the course of his discussions there and turn his trip into a push for justice.  Commerce and shared foreign policy interests are certainly valid topics for Obama and his Burmese counterparts to address, but there is room for human rights as well…be it the need for an independent judiciary, internet access sans censorship, or to give strength to recently escalated calls to prevent the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya minority.

The President currently has a singular chance to control the timetable of U.S. investment in Burma.  In light of little domestic opposition, he should do this by sticking to the commitments he has publicly made to begin a fair trading relationship; what Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly referred to as “democracy friendly, human rights friendly investments.”  Burma has no shortage of human rights indicators to tie to economic cooperation.  And even when Obama leaves, stringently enforced rights-aware trade will give the international community the continued leverage to ensure Burma’s democratic transition.  The U.S. can go a long way towards funding civil society and free association in Burma, even if done indirectly through conditional approval of local business operations.

To be sure, these are bold steps.  But if Obama is comfortable with making bold steps in regard to the sensitive subject of human rights in Burma, he might as well do it in full measure.  Transitional solutions should appeal to the Burmese military, foreign investors and the President alike as paths to true stability in Burma.  A military-civilian hybrid Burma will remain just another political actor, but a grateful democratic Burma can become a new U.S. ally in the region.  (I realize this argument has been used to justify disastrous misadventures over time and in America’s recent past. However, the will of the people as evidenced by the success of the National League for Democracy, the Burmese populace’s favorable opinion of the U.S., and perhaps even lessons learned in other nation-building follies may contribute to different circumstances in this case).

The White House’s own statement on Obama’s trip mentions the relative benefits of transparency and democracy.  President Obama has recognized Burma’s problems, but has he simultaneously excused them?  It is still quite possible that this much slower approach to human rights may succeed, but Obama has historically made a mockery out of human rights trade enforcement. It is up to President Obama to demonstrate America’s lasting commitment by making the solidification of Burmese civil society the primary focus of his trip, and not merely a hollow excuse for unfair and unsustainable trade.


Hal Levy is a junior at Columbia University majoring in human rights.  He is the Treasurer of Columbia University Students for Human Rights.

Will new constitutional commitments improve respect for human rights in Kyrgyzstan?

Kyrgyzstan, a small mountainous country in Central Asia, is sandwiched between China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In the twenty years since independence from the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan has seen three regimes. The first post-Soviet President, Askar Akaev, was an early reformer but, after increasing corruption and authoritarianism, was ousted during the ‘Tulip Revolution’ in March 2005. His successor, Kurmanbek Bakiev, promised to rewrite the Constitution and undo the excesses of the Akaev era, but ultimately consolidated power and resources. Bakiev was overthrown in April 2010 (see pictures), setting in motion the first effort to create a parliamentary democracy in Central Asia.

crisis in Kyrgyzstan 2010

Researching the contributions of the Kyrgyz human rights community

In summer 2011 I was lucky enough to receive a Kathryn Davis fellowship to study Russian at Middlebury College and also to receive a Harriman Institute fellowship to conduct research in Kyrgyzstan in the late summer and early fall for my Master’s thesis. My research interest was to further understand the contributions of the Kyrgyz human rights community during the constitutional reform efforts of both 2005 and 2010.

In both 2005 and 2010 the human rights community was involved in rewriting the Constitutions to include better rights provisions and state commitments. In 2005, they regulated pretrial detention and abolished the death penalty. In 2010 they improved the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of information, and added a new right on access to the international system, among other successes.

An essential motivation behind my research was to look beyond the improvements in constitutional rights provisions on paper to ask, has the new Constitution shifted the country’s identity toward a greater respect for human rights norms?


Increased rights commitments are positive, but applying the Constitution is key

The lead up to the constitutional referendum was not very encouraging. The June 27, 2010 referendum took place barely two weeks after inter-ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan left over 400 people dead. Some government officials and NGO activists urged that the referendum be postponed, but the interim government had tied its legitimacy to the vote and rejected any delay.

Against the inauspicious lead up to the June 27 referendum, there have been signs that the international human rights norms incorporated into the new Constitution have found a tentative foothold in Kyrgyzstan.

One encouraging sign is the recent decision by the government to establish a national mechanism for implementation of international human rights decisions. Another example is Kyrgyzstan’s recent treaty accessions (see second optional protocol to the ICCPR and Disabilities Convention).

One prominent human rights lawyer I spoke to during my research said that even though improvements to the Constitution were positive, what was needed was to apply it directly in the courts. It becomes increasingly important that people make use of it and follow through when confronted with State resistance. A medical doctor and activist who was a constitutional council member in 2005 echoed this view. She also noted that being able to cite the Constitution for authority instead of referring to an international treaty almost always strengthened her advocacy work on mental health system reform and political corruption.

Backsliding is easy, maintaining pressure is vital

As activists decide to test the limits of the Constitution, they often meet resistance. For example, one of the key successes in 2010 was an improvement in the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and the removal of penalties for not notifying authorities ahead of a protest. The constitutional change is dampened by the current draft law that restricts the right and retains onerous notification requirements on organizers.

Protests in Kyrgyzstan ahead of presidential elections, October 2011

Just as rights groups remain focused on pressuring the government to revise the draft law to be more in line with the spirit of the new Constitution, they are hopeful that ongoing monitoring,  documentation, and advocacy on a host of issues will help lead to greater human rights protection and government accountability.

Though Kyrgyzstan’s political trajectory is still unclear, my thesis research has provided an initial window into the efforts by rights groups to try and match government rhetoric to state commitments. With every small success, they help create the conditions for a rights respecting regime.

By Matthew Kennis. Matthew currently works as the Guatemala Country Specialist for Amnesty International USA. He recently received an MA in Human Rights Studies from Columbia University. He was a Kathryn Davis Fellow (Middlebury College Davis School of Russian) and also received a PepsiCo Summer Research Fellowship from the Harriman Institute at Columbia University for field research in Kyrgyzstan.