Archive for NATO

Human Rights Work in the Public Sector: a Discussion with Alumna Barbara Matias

By Lindsey Alpaugh, staff writer for RightsViews and graduate student in the Human Rights MA Program

On October 13th, the Institute for the Study of Human Rights hosted its first Alumni Speaker Series event with Barbara Matias. A graduate of the Institute’s MA in Human Rights Studies, Matias has had a diverse career that spanned over many countries, as well as different missions. Some of her most recent work has included her new position working for the European Union on Belarus, as well as a Programme Officer to the training mission in Iraq and the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Relief Crisis Center’s Team Lead on NATO-EU coordination. 

Speaking from experience, Matias advised job seekers  that “stability comes later” in the field of human rights, and that they should not be discouraged by the frequency with which they may switch jobs. She also admitted that there were  moments where she doubted her choice of working in the public sector, but ultimately realized that she was driven by this field.  While waiting for the next interview and job offer, Matias wrote articles for think tanks on subjects she was personally passionate about, and recommended that students work on building their online profiles. “We all find ourselves in these positions, and it’s a matter of knowing what you want, and doing what you have to do to find your next chapter,” she said.  

While she got her current job amidst the pandemic, she noted that the job search may take longer than usual as many opportunities may be frozen.  However, she advised students not to give up. In fact, she advocated for “shamelessly approaching people on LinkedIn”, and offered that it is easier now to reach out to people and ask to set up a Zoom meeting. Job seekers should “capitalize off of things being so virtual, turn that into a good thing, and try to reach more people than you would have” based on normal geographic proximity. Matias’s method is tried and true: she secured her current position by sitting down and reaching out to her network virtually.

When asked about challenges she faced when she came to ISHR for her MA studies, Matias responded that shifting her academic base from Europe to the US presented her with a bigger change than she had expected. She was surprised by how different the landscape was. Nonetheless, she was able to work through that by relying a lot on the resources at ISHR, who clarified American academic norms that were different from her previous educational experiences. 

Something Matias wishes she had done more of in her early human rights career was fieldwork. Her first taste of fieldwork was in 2017 when she spent some time based in a refugee camp in Greece, and lived in Pristina, Kosovo, working on EU integration. “That molded me, not only as a human, but I understood myself better, and myself as a professional,” she explained. She emphasized the value of becoming a local in Kosovo as best as she could, of paying taxes and becoming a permanent, instead of a passing, fixture in the landscape. In her opinion, “it’s one of the most interesting countries in terms of human rights, and European affairs.” She is looking forward to finding more opportunities to do fieldwork in the future so as to have more experiences like this. 

Matias’s biggest piece of advice to current students would be to go into the field and gain that experience. “Go somewhere completely out of your comfort zone, where you can’t rely on your languages.” She believes it adds value to your profile, and distinguishes potential applicants from their peers. She also suggests writing a lot, as her field involves a lot of writing: “even part time pro-bono as a researcher is important,” she said. During her time at Columbia, Matias wrote for RightsViews, the ISHR website and think tanks.

Matias also emphasized how much she believed in the necessity of proving oneself to be a global citizen, both in terms of fieldwork but also in speaking multiple languages. The benefit, she offers, is being able to consume more news and new perspectives, as well as allowing one to interact with more populations. “Try to do as many things out of the ordinary. That is how I have led my life,” she said while describing her  love for rising to a challenge in order to distinguish herself. 

Recalling her experience at Columbia, Matias credits ISHR for helping her elucidate what kind of work she wanted to be doing and learning that “it’s not about the title, it’s really about the kind of work that drives you.” She was also able to use resources at ISHR to improve her research and academic analytical skills and to finally graduate feeling like an academic, instead of a passive participant in a classroom. She emphasizes that students should use Columbia’s excellent network, and to put themselves out there both through seeking unique skills and reaching out to the larger community. She concluded that  “the chapter you’re in lays out your next chapter,” with each step building on the previous one.

Matias is currently working with the European Commission for Belarus where she drafts news reports and stays up to date with the evolving situation on the ground. She described her position as half knowing the role, and half keeping up with the news. At her previous role at NATO, the ISHR alumna worked on capacity building for the training and education mission in Iraq. She was based at NATO headquarters, but was in contact with her colleagues on the ground on a daily basis every day. She described the position as “dealing with local realities, and a country that is unlike any other.”

Intervention Lessons From Kosovo for Syria

By David L. Phillips, Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at ISHR


President Bill Clinton intervened in the Balkans to end a war in Bosnia and stop the slaughter of civilians in Kosovo. As the United States considers military intervention in Syria, the Obama administration should reflect on America’s Balkan engagements in the 1990s, considering what was done right — and wrong.

The international community took more than 3 years to stop ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. While it dithered, more than 100,000 people were killed and millions displaced. The response to Serbia’s aggression in Kosovo was faster and more effective. NATO launched a 78-day air campaign that prevented what happened in Bosnia from happening in Kosovo. The diplomacy and military operations were imperfect, but Kosovo is the gold standard in humanitarian intervention.

Here are some lessons from Kosovo that are relevant to Syria:

-Diplomacy comes first: After more than a quarter million Kosovo Albanians fled to the mountains during the summer of 1998, the U.S.-led Contact Group, which included Russia, negotiated the Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM) to verify the withdrawal of Serb forces, enable the return of displaced Kosovars, and ensure the delivery of humanitarian supplies. The KVM was suspended after 40 Kosovo civilians were massacred in Racak, including women and children.

-Back diplomacy with the threat of force: After Racak, NATO approved an “activation order,” the last step in force readiness before launching an attack. U.S. Special Envoy Richard C. Holbrooke issued an ultimatum, but Slobodan Milosevic scoffed at Holbrooke’s threat. NATO launched limited operations, then paused. Holbrooke called Milosevic to give him a last chance, but his entreaties were ignored. NATO’s full force was unleashed only after all diplomatic options were exhausted.

-Build international coalitions: With the UN Security Council paralyzed, the U.S. abandoned efforts to gain a UN resolution and focused its diplomacy on building consensus among NATO Member States. NATO did not act alone. It was backed by the Organization of Islamic Conference and statements by the UN Secretary General.

-Gain Congressional and public support: The Clinton administration worked effectively with civil society groups and the media to expose Milosevic’s criminal regime and make the case for military action. Intervention was supported by a broad bipartisan group of lawmakers. Albanian-Americans played a key role garnering support.

-Keep all options on the table: Clinton pledged no U.S. ground troops. Milosevic believed he could withstand NATO’s air campaign, and hunkered down. Milosevic finally capitulated after 78 days of intensive bombing.

-Expect retaliation: Serbia intensified its ethnic cleansing when NATO attacked. Serbian forces went door-to-door, assassinating Kosovo Albanian leaders and displacing more than one million Kosovars. The U.S. had conducted extensive contingency planning. Expecting population flows, humanitarian supplies were pre-positioned in Macedonia and Albania.

-Anticipate collateral damage: NATO mistakenly bombed a convoy of Albanian refugees fleeing Decani, killing 73 civilians. In the fog of war, NATO also accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Clinton personally apologized, but the incident entrenched China’s opposition to the war.

-Work with insurgents: Target selection became more difficult as the bombing campaign dragged on. NATO cooperated with the Kosova Liberation Army to identify targets and track Serbian troop movements. The KLA was an essential force on-the-ground that helped guide NATO air operations.

-Hand-over power to a credible local partner: American diplomats worked intensively to forge cooperation among Kosovar leaders. The Kosovo “Unity Team” became the nucleus of post-Milosevic administration in Kosovo.

-Walk-the-talk: In the middle of the Kosovo conflict, dignitaries from around the world gathered in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the 50th anniversary of NATO’s founding. The Clinton administration understood that Kosovo was more than a test of Western diplomacy. The future of the North Atlantic Alliance was also at-stake.

Has the Obama administration taken on-board lessons from Kosovo?

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The United States is diplomatically isolated, except for France which endorsed air strikes against Syria. Even Great Britain, America’s erstwhile ally in Iraq and Afghanistan, has balked. The Obama administration released its intelligence verifying Assad’s use of chemical weapons too late to influence the British parliament’s vote to authorize use of force. After the vote, Obama offended Britain by referring to France as America’s “oldest ally.”

Though Russia and China have vetoed three resolutions designed to pressure Assad, the Obama administration has bent over backwards to work with Russia on talks between the regime and opposition. The Geneva conference was stillborn from the beginning, and has recently been overtaken by events. Hezbollah entered the battlefield, rolling-back gains by the insurgents and further regionalizing the conflict.

Indignation is the right response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons. However, the threat of military action is more effective when demanding compliance rather than as a punitive measure. With U.S. tomahawk cruise missiles locked and loaded, the Obama administration should demand that Assad sequester chemical weapons under UN control or hand over field commanders to the International Criminal Court. It could also give Assad a deadline to relinquish power.

Some Members of Congress want air strikes to advance the goal of regime change. But who will succeed Assad? Syria’s insurgency is dominated by the Al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliated terror group murdering Alawites, moderate Arab Sunnis, and Syrian Kurds. Just like Kosovo when more than 100,000 Serbs fled after Milosevic was defeated, reprisals resulting in a bloodbath are a real possibility when Assad steps down.

Secretary of State John Kerry has been a passionate point man in the recent flurry of public diplomacy. However, the administration has not done enough to explain why it is in America’s national interest to attack Syria. Given public skepticism, Obama’s decision to consult lawmakers is a high-stakes gambit. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton launched strikes against Libya, Afghanistan and Kosovo without asking Congressional authorization.

Obama repeatedly characterized military action as “limited and narrow.” He called it a “shot across the bow.” He also publicly ruled out the possibility of ground troops. Taking the middle ground satisfies no one. Opponents to military action are not convinced. At the same time, moderation may be alienating some senators clamoring for a more robust response.

Obama is clearly a reluctant warrior. He understands that Americans are weary from a decade of conflict in distant lands. However, Obama has boxed himself into a corner. Speaking at an impromptu news conference more than a year ago, he went off-script saying that President Bashar al-Assad’s use or movement of chemical weapons represents a “red-line” that would change his administration’s “calculus,” with significant consequences including the possibility of more direct U.S. intervention in the conflict.

Drawing a red-line is morally correct. It is also in America’s national security interest. I visited Iraqi Kurdistan after chemical weapons were used to kill thousands. It was a horrific scene. Indiscriminate use of the world’s most heinous weapons against civilians violates international humanitarian law and norms of decency. Just like Milosevic’s murderous rampage in Bosnia and Kosovo, it cannot be tolerated.

However, military action is a tactic not a policy. The decision to go to war should be linked to a broader strategy of creating a safe haven on Syria’s border with Syria and Jordan. The safe haven would be protected by a no-fly-zone, enforced by NATO. As was the case in Kosovo, a Russian contingent under NATO’s command could be deployed. The safe haven would allow refugees to return to Syria. It would also provide a buffer between Syria and front-line states, furthering stability in the region. Creating a safe haven could also change momentum on the battlefield, revitalizing prospects for a Geneva conference and bringing the grinding conflict in Syria closer to an end.

This article previously appeared on The Huffington Post on September 3, 2013.


David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights. His most recent book is Liberating Kosovo: Coercive Diplomacy and U.S. Intervention.