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Disarming Militias in Libya: Look to the Examples of Others

Posted in Disarmament, Libya, Middle East, Peacebuilding with tags , , on October 10, 2012 by michaelkeating

The BBC reported on how in Benghazi and Tripoli last week (10/29), over 600 Libyan militiamen turned over their weapons to the Libyan army in exchange for the opportunity to win electronics such as laptops and TVs.
This is just a small victory for peace building considering that some 200,000 Libyans  have access to over 2 million weapons that include a variety of weapons ranging from tanks to handguns.

The weapons are in the hands of militia groups  as a result of the 2011 Libyan civil war and were primarily acquired from the Gaddafi regime or from neighboring countries. Previous attempts to collect them have failed but it seems that momentum was gained after the attack on the US embassy in Libya on September 11 that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens. The government put out public announcements on TV for the recall of weapons and it worked to a limited degree because of disgust over the terrorist act from just a few weeks before and a desire on the part of many civilians to establish peace and begin rebuilding the state. See the report here.

Peter Fragiskatos argues, in a BBC op-ed, that there are hundreds of militia groups motivated by  two reasons: for ideological reasons and for
material gains.   We know that at least this recent success story appealed to those looking for material gains. The trick may be figuring out the right incentives for groups that are motivated by ideological reasons. Attempts to replicate this recent weapons turnover will likely be tried in other Libyan cities. What can be learned from this?

Fragiskatos pointed out that this is not the first successful attempt by governments to collect arms after domestic civil strife. He highlights
that there have been successful attempts in Albania, Mozambique and Cambodia to collect weapons. In these cases, governments provided the militia with job training, various tools, or community projects using local labor as incentive for weapons turnover to the military.

If the Libyan government would like to implement weapons collections in other cities and make meaningful progress to this end, perhaps they should upgrade incentives to more practical ones that could offer the militia groups opportunity to improve their livelihoods. TVs are not going to provide permanent employment opportunities for these rebels. Rather, job education, household tools, public works projects will help to employ people and rebuild society. Furthermore, with help from the international community in the form aid, there should be guaranteed incentives offered to every one of the 200,000 estimated rebels who hand in weapons rather than entering them into a lottery with only the potential to win prizes.

It is still too soon to tell if this will be successful in fostering peace and aiding the society rebuilding process. In the months to come. if the Libyan government continues to successfully recall weapons, this could offer insight into how to help heal future post conflict societies and how to help them avoid falling into  viscous cycles of conflict.

Check out this BBC video clip of a Libyan weapons collection checkpoint and read the full article, “Libyans hand over hundreds of weapons to army.”

Priscilla DeGregory is a graduate student in the McCormack Graduate School at UMass Boston.


No Exit to the Middle East Morass?

Posted in Middle East with tags , , on September 29, 2012 by michaelkeating


Governor Romney has said that as president his attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be to kick the can down the street. As a peacenik (and an Obama supporter) who believes that a two-state solution is not only the best way  but the only way out of the century old conflict, it hurts me to say that the governor, whatever his motives, is right. I would much prefer to be pressing a peace plan on the president of the United States, but in my judgment, there is very little he can do to move the two parties toward a negotiation, much less toward an agreement.

Both sides have made completely clear by their actions that they do not wish to negotiate anything that comes close to a peace agreement. They both of course want to blame the other side for the lack of any negotiating, but that is just talk. I am not privy to the motives of Netanyahu or Abbas, but it is not so difficult to see the peace -making world as they see it.

President Abbas is, as a political leader, an empty shell. He has no influence whatever in Gaza, and with only minor exceptions, nearly no influence even in Ramallah. The best one can say is that he is a figurehead. Since there is no way he could implement a peace agreement if he had one, he has worked hard to stay away from any process that could actually reach one. Some of Abbas’ weakness is due to Israeli efforts to not give him any victories he can show the Palestinian people. But much is also due to the failure of the Palestinian people, which includes their leadership, to accept the realities a peace agreement would require. The most glaring example is the insistence that Palestinian refugees have a  right to return to their homes in Israel. In 2000-2001 Palestinian leaders – but not President Arafat – were actively negotiating with Israel for a number and framework by which a modest number of refugees could return to Israel, but since then Abbas has participated in a Palestinian drift back to a sloganized commitment to a right of return for all.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, were he to consider a peace agreement, would need to confront 350,000 Jewish settlers on the West Bank  (this does not include the settlers living in East Jerusalem). Some large number of these would, in the face of a peace agreement, accept money and move out. How many would not? No one knows, and it is part of settler strategy to keep it that way, but the most optimistic number suggests that at least 26,000 would resist all efforts at a financial arrangement. This is over three times the number of Jews who were removed from Gaza. And the West Bank is not Gaza. The West Bank has religious, historical, nationalist, and security meanings not present in Gaza; many settlers on the West Bank are armed, funded, and committed to not letting Gaza happen again. For strategic reasons the settlers mainly duck the question of whether they would use force to resist being moved out by the Israeli army, but what prime minister in his right mind would be willing to take the chance – even if it is estimated a modest one – of starting a civil war, of Jews killing Jews. And this doesn’t take into account the influence the settlers now have in all the relevant government ministries, the courts, and most importantly, the army itself.

More, the Israeli people, the religious settlers and the secular majority, have not faced the realities (for themselves) of an indefinite occupation by 4 or-500,000 Jewish settlers (and a substantial army) controlling 2.5 million Palestinians on the West Bank. The Israelis live in a protected bubble. Their economic and social lives are not bad. Their security is pretty good. What happens “over there” is just not their business.

In short, Israelis and Palestinians know the realities, realities they themselves have made. But facing them is too difficult, too frightening.

For both sides, then, there is no partner with whom to negotiate.

But, it is often said, the powerful United States, leading a coalition of European and other countries, could encourage, coerce, and cajole the parties, with a combination of carrots and sticks, to come to the table and negotiate. Israelis and Palestinians are both dependent on monies from the rest of the world, and of course from the U.S. in particular: threaten to withhold those monies, promise all kinds of economic and security benefits, and those parties will jump.

This is a plausible argument up to a point, and we have seen it actually work at least three times before: once in Madrid in 1991, once at Camp David in 2000, and once at Annapolis in 2007 In all three situations, many countries, led by the U.S., pressured one or both sides to come to the table, and they came. But we have also seen that on none of those three occasions did any agreement result; and in only one of them, Camp David, was there even any negotiating at all. (Arguably, Arafat didn’t negotiate there either.)

No force on earth can make a head of state negotiate if he/she doesn’t want to, and no force on earth can make a head of state come to an agreement if he/she doesn’t want to. (Bombing the parties might be an exception to this declaration.) Netanyahu and Abbas have looked at a peace process and decided that they are better off with no negotiation and no agreement.
So what is a president to do? The proper answer is: wait for a better opportunity, and if there are ways to help make that opportunity arise, go for them. The region of this conflict is, to understate considerably, volatile. No sane person can predict with much confidence what will happen in Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, or Jordan (to take only the surrounding countries) over the next five years. Will the continued Israeli settlement expansion strike a nerve that inflames Arab resentment and large-scale violence? Will the people of those surrounding countries decide that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict deserves more than their rhetorical attention? Will the Palestinians decide that modest economic improvement is not a substitute for political improvement? Will the Sunni/Shia conflicts seek a common enemy? Will heavily armed Hamas and Hezbollah go from bark to bite?  Will an economic depression energize Israelis to pull back the huge public investment now used to support settlements and their expansion?  Will Iran…?

The US and the world’s other major players have their hands full with many other things that they can at least try to influence. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will continue to evolve, and many, particularly Palestinians, will suffer (as will the U.S. reputation in the region) while it does. But ineffectual efforts at intervention, as we have seen, are worse than none.


David Matz

Senior Fellow, Center for Peace, Development and Democracy

Professor, Conflict Resolution, UMass/Boston

Partner, The Mediation Group

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen : Build It and They Will Spawn

Posted in Democratic Development, Foreign Direct Investment, Middle East, NGO with tags , , on March 12, 2012 by michaelkeating



It isn’t often that romantic comedy and economic sustainability show up on the same screen but that’s what’s on offer in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by the Swedish director Lasse Halstrom.

Here are some thoughts from the perspective of development theory. They are not meant to spoil the fun, which this film truly is, but to just raise a few questions. (Attention! Spoiler alert!)

The project in question is a water management scheme in Yemen that will have the secondary benefit of providing recreation and tourism in the form of fly-fishing for salmon. All of this is the brain-child of a mysterious and fabulously wealthy fly-fishing fanatic with the somewhat unimaginative name of Sheik Muhammed (Amr Wakend). The  Sheik is also something of an Anglophile which might explain the several huge estates he has bought himself in Scotland to pursue his passion, as well as his interest in hiring Fred (Ewan McGregor), a U.K. Government Fisheries expert, and Harriet (Emily Blount) a private investment counselor to bring his brain-child to life.

So far the project is a public-private partnership writ large. The problem is that the Sheik lives in a country that has a lot of people who do not want western influences and probably resent his jet-setting life style. Despite warnings, the sheik pours tens of millions into the project only to see it disappear down the drainage ditch. Literally.

But this is where development theory comes into the script. After the large grandiose project is foiled by local politics, Fred and Harriet, who by this time have predictably become romantically entangled, vow to start over again (presumably with even more of the Sheik’s money) but this time to get ‘local buy-in’ and to get the locals to adopt the project ‘as their own.’ It’s not clear how this trio of idealists is going to overcome the deep political divisions that beset Yemen and it is also unlikely that they are going to get buy-in to a fly-fishing scheme from the well armed crew that upset their plans in the first place but in place of this skepticism, the film, through the words of Sheik Muhammed, asks us to have ‘faith’ that the project will succeed.

Despite the billions he has at his disposal to pursue an over-the-top life-style the Sheik, you see, is a deeply religious and philosophical man. For him fly-fishing is not so much a sport but a grand metaphor for the relation between man and the universe. His faith in the success of the project turns out to be much stronger than the forces aligned against it. Development projects fail not because they are ill conceived but because their authors simply do not have enough faith that they will succeed. In other words, they do not trust the universe.

In addition, we learn early on in the film not to jump to conclusions about specific countries and geographies. When he is presented with the project, Fred’s initial reaction is complete disbelief that it will work ‘because salmon need water and there isn’t any water in the desert!’ But as it turns out, this is a wrong assumption (but one probably shared by 99% of the people in the world when they think about Yemen.) We are told that this particular part of Yemen is different from the rest of the Arabian peninsula because it has a yearly rainy season and many underground water sources. Who knew?

The point that the filmmaker is trying to make is that we need to test our assumptions about people and places because much of what we have in our heads is simply wrong. Point well taken!

One of the other delights of the film is the performance by Kirsten Scott-Thomas as Patricia Maxwell the acerbic, Blackberry addicted  Press Officer for the British Prime Minister. Not interested in the social benefits of the project at all, she views the whole scheme simply as a ‘good story coming out of the Middle East’ that can offset all the dreary news coming from Iraq and Afghanistan. In this view, development assistance on the part of Western countries is simply a public-relations scheme that is intended to keep people’s minds off other things.

Since DFID, the UK’s well funded and very generous development agency, is not mentioned in the film (and as they would likely be involved in such a project in real life) it is fair to say that the film is a bit misleading in how development assistance really works. It is also unfair to the British tax-payer to suggest that their development assistance dollars are paying for little more than infomercials for British political ambitions.

As light entertainment, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen succeeds admirably. As an exploration of how development works in the real world it’s a bit fishy.

Sorry, I was just casting about for slippery end!

Michael Keating


Jacques Beres: A Different Kind of Hero in Homs

Posted in Humanitarianism, Middle East, Syria with tags , , on February 24, 2012 by michaelkeating

While the world of journalism mourns the death of journalists Marie Colvin and Anthony Shadid, reports out of France tell the extraordinary tale of a French Doctor, Jacques Beres, the 70-year old co-founder of Medecins Sans Frontieres who has smuggled himself into Homs to ‘witness and to heal.’

Like Colvin and Shadid, Dr. Beres is no stranger to war zones.

He has taken his black bag to Liberia, Bangladesh, Chad, Congo, Chechnya, Rwanda, Iraq, Sierra Leone, Lebanon,  and Palestine.

Although a founder of MSF he quickly ran afoul of management constraints as he preferred the action of the field to the paperwork of running an organization.




Since we published this the New York Times has posted a more recent take on the reasons Dr. Beres was forced to leave Syria.


Michael Keating