War and Peace

A Promising Peace Deal Reached in South Sudan

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When small, politically defined areas break away from larger nations or controlling empires, the process often involves simmering unrest that eventually spills over into violent conflict.

Depending on the reaction of the “parent” entity, the disaffection may be resolved and the smaller party brought back into the fold. Or the rebellion may be crushed and the participants jailed or prosecuted.

Often, simmer turns to boil, attempts at resolution fail, and the two sides find themselves in the midst of a war that ends if and when the smaller entity prevails and establishes its independence.

But typically, within a generation, the newly independent nation becomes embroiled in civil conflict as different factions strive to put their own stamp on the new national identity. How will the nation’s army be established and led? How will its government be structured? How will its constitution or charter be drafted?

A form of this common pattern has played out in South Sudan, currently seven years old and the world’s newest nation. In 2013, soon after establishing its sovereignty, the new government tumbled from disagreement to deadly violence. Thousands were killed during this period and four million were displaced, half of whom fled the country into the neighboring states of Sudan and Uganda.

The Khartoum-based peace negotiations taking place at the end of this violent era have been largely facilitated and supported by several entities, including the governments of these two neighbor countries, the UN, and the East African Regional Body, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).

On Sunday, a major breakthrough in the peace process occurred, with President Salva Kiir and his chief rival, Riek Machar, signing a deal alongside members of other opposition factions.

As explained by David Shearer, head of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), Mr. Kiir will retain his position while Mr. Machar will be named the first of five vice-presidents.

Residents of Juba, the capital city where the deal was reached, celebrated in the streets on Sunday night. This weekend marks the end of five years of brutal conflict and a major turning point in the development of the new nation. Learn more here and join us as we follow these unfolding events.


Hudaydah: The Search for Updates and Implications

Here on the Just Atonement blog we attempt to circle back to previous commentary and we constantly look for connections between global events and our personal mission. A few weeks ago, we discussed the perilous situation unfolding in and around the Yemeni port city of Hudaydah, the only significant point of entry and exit for humanitarian relief and for those entering or fleeing a country torn apart by years of ongoing civil war.

At our last update, the situation in Hudaydah had become untenable, and had been classified by the U.N. as the worst current humanitarian crisis in the world. The city, held by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, was under siege by Saudi and UAE-backed troops who were receiving active support from the US military.

A violent strike on the city in an attempt to target Houthi militants had entered the final planning stages, with world leaders, including the US, imploring the Saudi Arabia and the UAE to change course before endangering the lives of millions of civilians and tipping the country further into full scale famine. The US, while not refusing to participate in planned air strikes, attempted to negotiate by threatening a scale-down of certain forms of support, including refueling efforts.

The world held its breath, and then the news cycle moved on.

US reporting turned back to our own country’s ongoing political crisis, new reports of Russian meddling in our election process, and the unending series of blunders and criminal investigations plaguing the current administration.

But what happened in Yemen? And will US uncertainty about the Iran nuclear deal impact what happens next?

The feared and anticipated assault on the port city is now underway, but related events are moving forward in ways that not easy to predict, observe or report. As of this past week, the most heated areas of fighting have been centered around the Yemeni airport, which has now changed hands. The airport is no longer under the control of the Houthi and has been overtaken by the Yemeni military and its Saudi and UAE backers.  

In the meantime, the fight for the airport has claimed approximately 280 lives, and the fate of civilians trapped in the port city is more uncertain than ever.

At some point in the future, a possible negotiated settlement may involve offering and financing an autonomous Houthi area in northern Yemen. But unfortunately, current discussions of a peaceful solution have focused on less on negotiations and more on total disarmament of the Houthis. A settlement-focused UN resolution is not yet on the table. (And as recently as this weekend, our own deeply troubled administration has been ramping up threats to Iran via twitter).  

Meanwhile, it’s important for all of us to bear in mind that a humanitarian event this vast in scope will have far reaching consequences, even if the current twists and turns of the conflict are difficult to discern and analyze. In other words, these events are hard to follow, but their disappearance from the news cycle will not reduce their seismic impact on the world community.

Please read this short review in International Policy Digest to better understand the current state of Yemen and its implications for the global landscape.


A Historic UN Agreement on Global Migration

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Last week, UN member states finalized the text of an agreement that has been in development for more than a year. Called “The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration”, the agreement recognizes that transborder migration is an international phenomenon which can be successfully managed through international cooperation. The agreement also recognizes the right of every individual to safety, dignity and protection in the inevitable and global transition of people across national borders.

The compact respects the sovereignty of individual states and imposes no legally binding dictates that govern when and how migration will occur. It also does not aim to encourage or discourage migration in general. But it does provide a management resource, or guide, that can help states proactively prepare for immigration and emigration events.

This comprehensive framework directly addresses some of the thorniest issues that migration presents, for example, how to balance state sovereignty and human rights, how to determine the effect of mobility on economic development, and how to determine what constitutes voluntary movement.

The agreement will ideally diffuse the most dangerous, exploitative, and chaotic aspects of transborder migration and support elements of safety, social cohesion, and economic progress.

This document also represents the power of multilateral approaches to international problems, a timely message in an age of increasing human transition.

Speaking on the subject of migration, Special Representative for International Migration Louise Arbour stated, “Its chaotic, dangerous exploitative aspects cannot be allowed to become a new normal.”

Please feel free to read the text of the agreement here! And enjoy some promising news in an uncertain global migration landscape.


The Options That Lie Ahead

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This is an existentially stressful day. It’s Monday, July 16th, and as of last week, fresh evidence has been revealed that suggests a massive, cohesive effort to subvert democracy in the United States in 2016. The perpetrators of this effort are now meeting behind closed doors in a presumably friendly session with the political leader that the efforts successfully installed.

Meanwhile, the planet is warming in ways that will not likely be stopped or reversed, even in the event of globally unified, beautifully coordinated campaign, the odds of which are vanishingly slim. Capitalist pressures and disruptions to democratic systems are powerful forces that push back against this effort at every turn, by both deregulating industry and by breaking down a harmonious coordination between nations that might represent our last chance at salvation. The prospects for human health and prosperity during the second half of the 21st century are increasingly cloudy, and as resources diminish, desperation and its attendant scapegoating, panic and violence are likely to follow.

For reasons that may or may not be scientifically linked to this predictable set of events, birthrates are slowing, but no rate of reduction will likely be enough to forestall a spike in measurable human suffering that seems to lie on the horizon.

We are a product of the things that happen around us. No person is born into a world free of influences, and no person lives a life untouched and unshaped by their culture and circumstances. In other words, not a single one of us can opt out of whatever lies ahead. There is no exit from this ride; our only responses, reactions and choices will come from a menu of options, a menu which will become easier to read as time goes by.

Humanity will survive, of course: Humans have seen worse and have endured worse than what we are experiencing right now, and on every occasion so far we have emerged on the other side of change and hardship intact, if damaged by the experience. This will happen again. But on the path ahead, every one of us will be forced to adapt in one way or another. Here are some of the options and adaptations that seem to be appearing in front of us. Do any of them look familiar?

Selective consumption

Temperature increases around the globe appear linked to human activity, which seems to take one primary form above all others: consumption. “Activity” seems to be synonymous with making stuff, buying stuff, transporting stuff, using stuff, and throwing stuff away. Between food, plastic, travel, amusement, and personal comfort, stuff lies at the heart of the fossil fuel blaze that keeps us in motion, and pushing back against reckless consumption seems like a wise and promising personal choice. Saving our money and limiting plane flights, meat consumption, and plastic use seem like easy decisions with a measurable impact. Are they? Only time will tell, but many of us are leaning toward this option as a way of stemming the tide.  


The choice to have children isn’t always considered a choice; for many of us, bringing children into the world is a biological drive as natural and urgent as preserving our own lives. But as birthrates drop, what becomes of this drive? There are still millions of children around the planet who need parents and don’t have them. And “adoption” can be considered a kind of metaphor. It’s a way of redirecting our energy toward protecting, preserving, and finding personal meaning in devotion to that which is already here.

Degrees of activism

It’s one thing to make a choice that protects the planet and the people around us. But it’s another thing altogether to take a leadership role in this process and extend our influence beyond ourselves. Activism means doing wise things, and then to encouraging and helping others to do those things as well. The only hurdle: activism requires effort, energy, and lots of typically uncompensated labor. It’s not for everyone, but it’s a rewarding option for some.

Adjustments of consciousness

Not doing anything at all appears to be one of our options, and it’s an option that most of us will appear to take until the day we are forced into action by the circumstances of our own lives. But this is an illusion. When we tune out, we aren’t really tuning out. We aren’t really turning off the radio when we do this, we’re just changing the station, and frequent station changes may actually be healthy and wise. Turning our attention toward art, communication, spirituality, and connection with others in any form can widen a shrinking perspective, ward off desperation and fear, and help us remember that there are thousands of ways to feel and many sides to every story. It’s never a bad idea to remember this. Turning away often just means looking at the same world from different angles.

Adjustments of environment

Here’s a common scenario: A person wants to lose weight, but every night he finds himself opening the fridge and eating cookies and cake. One day, he accepts that willpower and self-determination cannot solve this problem. These things have not worked, and they never will. So he throws away the cookies. Every night he stares into the fridge longing for cookies, but they aren’t there. So he can’t eat them, and he loses weight. Sometimes we change ourselves by changing the things around us. We move, shift jobs, adjust our friends, or alter the landscape we see when our eyes open each morning. We will adapt to whatever we place in front of ourselves; we just have to get past the first and hardest step.

Do you see your own course of action on this list? Do you see a course of action that you’d like to take, but you aren’t sure how? We’re here to help. Contact our team and join our mission. Together, we’re going to face whatever lies ahead. The only way out is forward.


Assault on the Judiciary in Poland

Two powerful aspects of our modern era, above all others, have proven themselves to be bulwarks against what might otherwise become immeasurable human suffering: stable democracies and stable economies. When a nation establishes itself as a reasonably transparent collective of leaders who are chosen by the citizenry, stability and predictability tend to follow. This stability supports the growth and regulation of a financial system that accounts for the needs and the productive capacity of the nation’s people and its natural resources. There are no real surprises here: Democracy is good for people, good for nations, and beneficial for the neighbors of both individuals and democratic states.


But as we know, democracy is fragile. Some systems are self-sustaining, and once put into motion, they reinforce themselves as time goes by. But others are not self-sustaining, and they require continual pressure from inside and out in order to stand firm against the pull of entropy.

Unfortunately, democratic systems of government—our best protection against hunger, disease, injustice and civil chaos—fall into the second category.  Democracy works. But it does not work without the constant application of pressure and participation from every direction. And as we’ve learned over time, a few common signals indicate cracks and signs of trouble that must be addressed if democratic systems are to survive. These include authoritarian assaults on 1) the media and free press, 2) justice for political dissidents, 3) separation of religious institutions from state institutions, and 4) the independence of the judiciary.

Right now in Poland, a full scale attack on judicial independence is underway.

On Tuesday night at midnight, a law went into effect mandating that all Supreme Court Justices over age 65 must retire immediately. This effectively removes 27 of the country’s 72 judges from the bench. The government, led by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, asserts that these measures are necessary.

Speaking to the parliament of the European Union on Wednesday, Morawieki insisted that the Polish government (and all governments of EU member nations) have the “right to shape their legal systems according to their own traditions”. But many have identified this move as a straightforward attempt by the ruling party to gain control over the judiciary.

On Wednesday morning, all 27 purged justices showed up for work. They were not prevented from entering the building.

"This is a watershed moment for the Polish judiciary and indeed for the whole political system," said Piotr Buras, head of a think tank called the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). "It may have some very far-reaching consequences and implications for further political development in Poland."

On Wednesday morning and into Thursday of last week, chaos seemed to prevail as supporters cheered the defiant justices.

We will be watching developments in Poland over the next few weeks with our attention fixed, as always, on democratic principles and applications unfolding in real time. Only by learning from history can we avoid repeating it, and we learn by staying alert as our lessons become available.

What is Populism?

Every now and then, a highly recognizable but not well understood term sidles into our discourse and becomes a household word, invoked by everyone from candidates on the trail to analysts who we rely on to explain complex social and political systems. We’ve seen this happen with words like “recession” and “healthcare reform”, and any number of “isms” that are used as an insult in one sentence and a proud political identity in the next.


Right now, a dangerous form of populism appears to be on the rise in vulnerable areas of Europe and South America. But before we can attempt to understand these trends or determine what they foretell, we should agree on what the term means.

And the most important thing to recognize about this word is simple: It doesn’t really mean anything. There is no concrete or specific definition that ties the word to any political agenda. A “populist” is not a fascist, a conservative, a liberal, or an anarchist. A populist is not “popular”. The term doesn’t refer to any specific location on the ideological spectrum from left to right; rather, it refers to a strategic approach to a political goal, not the goal itself.

No matter what they hope to achieve, populists target their appeal to what they see as “the people”, or the many, instead of the “elite”, or the few. They often strive to ingratiate themselves with large majority factions that believe they have been overlooked or ignored by policy makers. Populists are not pluralists. Instead of embracing a multicultural audience, they target a single group within the audience and reassure the members of that group that they have value, often promising to restore a sense of identity and influence that the group members believe they have lost.

Why is this approach so problematic? What could be dangerous about promising to dismantle elite, exclusive institutions that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor? Because this strategy often turns the destructive, dismantling energy of “the people” against two entities that are easily vilified: minorities and the rule of law.

The populist approach also historically brings out the worst in all of us. Populism tends to leverage and exploit some of the weaker elements in our souls: fear of outsiders and immigrants, fear of those who don’t look like we do, distrust of the media, and distrust of anything aligned with “the elite”, including higher education and seemingly oppressive institutions (like banks and courts). If we are members of the target audience, populism promises simple solutions that will fix all of “our” problems. The solutions seem easy to understand and easy to implement, and they often appear to be rooted in a kind of homespun common sense. Unfortunately, these simple fixes place the blame for complex societal and economic problems at the feet of easily-maligned systems and people—like immigrants, women, vulnerable minorities, the disabled, and the very poor, as well as more abstract entities that still make easy targets, like “science”, “politicians” and “the rich”.

How do we avoid falling under the sway of populist appeals? We can start by distrusting quick fixes that seem too simple to be true. And how do we recognize the rise of populist leaders in areas and countries that are not our own? We can look for certain hallmarks, like direct appeals to members of threatened majority groups, easy promises that soothe personal fears and grievances, and passionate speeches that are long on fear-mongering and short on policy and substance. All of us are vulnerable to the influence of populist messaging—regardless of our personal group identities or our position on a wealth or political spectrum. We all have a responsibility to stand guard against the flawed and dangerous implications of these types of appeals. Learn more by clicking here, here, or here.

Family Separation at the US Border: The UN Finally Speaks Out

The practice of separating families—including the removal of very young children from the custody of their parents—has put into place by two immigration-related executive orders passed in January of 2017, then formally announced by attorney general Jeff Sessions in May of 2018. These policies have been implemented by the Trump administration, despite claims by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency that the administration “does not have a blanket policy on separating families as a deterrent” to would-be asylum seekers. (And despite claims by Trump himself that the practice existed before 2017).


Some confusion has arisen over this policy and practice during the month that has elapsed between the attorney general’s announcement and the present, with slightly misleading statements made and parsed regarding the “loss” of approximately 1,400 children who were placed in the care of sponsors who later could not be reached for updates on their welfare or whereabouts.

But while the argument can be made that children placed with sponsors can’t and should not be tracked by federal agencies, one disturbing aspect of this jumbled narrative is clear: Since October of 2017, several hundred children of Central American asylum seekers have been forcibly removed from their parents—without recourse or explanation-- as part of a “zero tolerance” illegal immigration policy and the resulting criminal prosecutions applied to those who cross “irregularly”. These separations have been overtly used as a deterrent by the Trump administration, and as of June 5, 2018, the United Nations has formally spoken out against the practice.

United Nations human rights office spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani called upon the United States to immediately halt the practice as she spoke to reporters in Geneva. “The practice of separating families amounts to arbitrary and unlawful interference in family life, and is a serious violation of the rights of the child. The use of immigration detention and family separation as a deterrent runs counter to human rights standards and principles,” she said.

Shamdasani made clear that this form of family separation flouts international human rights laws, to which the US is subject.

As it happens, this formal announcement has been released days after Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley attempted to visit an immigration detention center in Texas and was denied access, during a video taped scene in which the Senator was mysteriously forbidden from entering the facility, a former Wal-Mart with blacked out windows. No explanations have yet been provided and no information has been shared regarding who occupies the building and what conditions exist inside.

The UN announcement may result in an increased attempt to provide transparency or course corrections, but this is a disturbing turn of events in a nation with an otherwise positive record regarding democracy and respect for human rights. Join us as we follow these unfolding events.

A UN Special Criminal Court in the Central African Republic

In 2012, conflict between Christian militia members and a mostly Muslim rebel coalition in the Central African Republic (CAR) descended into what the UN defines as a civil war. In January of 2013, a peace agreement was reached, but the agreement collapsed just two months later as rebels seized the capital city of Bangui and forced the president, Francois Bozize, to flee.

Since that time, violent conflict has mired the CAR in a humanitarian and political crisis that has left the most vulnerable citizens—including children, the ill, and the poor—in need of security, nutrition and healthcare.  As of May 2018, one in four people in the country have been internally displaced, and the boundaries of this displacement now include central and northern areas that were formerly peaceful.


Severe malnutrition and high infant mortality are serious concerns, but beyond these issues lie longer term problems; an entire generation of displaced children are not currently enrolled in school, which can have an impact that lasts far beyond the resolution of the conflict.

In 2014, the United Nations Security Council authorized a stabilization mission with the

protection of vulnerable citizens as its first priority. In addition to nutritional support, water access, and other humanitarian aid, when a burst of violence erupted in the capital earlier this year, UN troops were forced to intervene to prevent Muslim citizens from being denied healthcare access.

Najat Rochdi, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for CAR, spoke at a recent press conference in Geneva, emphasizing the depth and urgency of the crisis. She described a 70% percent increase in displacement in one year’s time, which runs at odds with 2017 funding levels that reached only 40 percent of what had been requested. Even so, the UN has managed to provide water access to one million people and educational support to 60,000 children. 70,000 farm families have received a seed allocation, and 17,000 small children suffering from acute malnutrition have been provided with intervention.

Also during her conference, Ms. Rochdi described the efforts of militia members to pressure the government to grant them amnesty. The UN has established a Special Criminal Court to deal with individual cases and, starting in early June, this court will work to prevent impunity for humanitarian crimes. The court will begin by addressing the cases of high profile militia group leaders, who are often responsible for attacks on aid workers in what is now considered one of the world’s most dangerous places for humanitarians.

What lies at the heart of the conflict and fuels the ongoing violence? The country’s natural wealth—gold, diamonds, and uranium-- mark the locations that experience the highest levels of strife. According to Ms. Rochdi, no problems exist in areas where there is “nothing to steal”.

Join us as we follow the early actions of the Special Criminal Court and the evolution of this ongoing crisis.

A Questionable Election Outcome in Venezuela

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has held his current seat since the death of previous president Hugo Chavez in 2013. After taking over the helm of an oil-rich nation led by a well-liked figure who initiated a series of popular but unstable economic policy decisions, Maduro has built his presidential legacy by perpetuating the most damaging of these policies while failing to win a similar measure of respect and support among the Venezuelan people.

Now facing an inflationary crisis, citizens of what was until recently one of the wealthiest nations in South America have gone to the polls to choose a leader who will hold the position for a six-year term.

Elections took place this past weekend between Maduro and challenger Henri Falcon, but even before the polls opened, large numbers of Venezuelans planned to boycott the process, believing that the results would be manipulated. So far, these predictions appear to have been accurate. Despite evident popular sentiment and analyst expectations, Maduro walked away with 68 percent of the vote on Sunday. These results seem improbable, and the international community already appears to be mobilizing in condemnation.


Citizens in Caracas turned out immediately in protest following the announcement of the results, many attributing the 40-point difference to—among other actions—vote-buying schemes designed to leverage the desperation of poor Venezuelans who have already been driven to the brink of starvation by the country’s devalued currency.

While many anti-government politicians and activists have been persecuted and forced to flee the country, Henri Falcon appears poised to stay and play a leadership role in ongoing protests. His position appears to be backed by at least 14 nations throughout the Americas (a growing list that includes Brazil, Mexico and Colombia). Members of the coalition have pledged to apply both diplomatic and economic pressure to the seemingly illegitimate government until it rectifies an electoral process that does not meet international standards.

A few serious obstacles impede the path toward grassroots-level change in Venezuela, and within these obstacles are lessons for all nations who find themselves facing internal corruption at the electoral level. First, in spite of—and possibly because of—economic desperation and precarious access to vital resources, many Venezuelans are not focused on presidential politics. According to polls and interviews, what might otherwise have become a formidable tide of outrage may be giving way to quiet disappointment and resignation. Second, a status quo has taken hold among many citizens here, since Maduro has held the position for five years. Despite his lack of success and low odds of future turnaround, his status as a fixture may prevent deeper anti-corruption sentiment from taking hold. 

But external pressure from the international community may be strong enough to initiate action. So far, El Salvador and Cuba have chosen to stand behind Maduro, but the European Union, most Latin American countries, and the US appear to back the opposition. A tipping point may be reached if the US imposes sanctions on the Venezuelan oil sector, which so far has not happened. The events of the week ahead will provide us with predictive information about Venezuelans’ fight against corruption and the country’s prospects over the next six years.

Democratic Expression in the Streets of Armenia

So far, the spring of 2018 has been marked by public demonstrations and peaceful unrest in Armenia, which peaked at the end of April as protestors took the streets to oppose a power grab by recent president Serzh Sargsyan. Sargsyan has expired his term as president, but due to a new law established in 2015, the prime minister position has been expanded to involve greater power and higher levels of parliamentary influence. Instead of stepping down, the former president made a bid for the prime minister role, a move viewed by many as an arrogant presumption (particularly after two terms as president which many consider unsuccessful and antidemocratic).

A former journalist and the leader of a very small opposition faction, Nikol Pashinyan, orchestrated April street protests in Yerevan that attracted more than 150,000 people, a large turnout for this small formerly soviet nation in the Caucasus. (Pashinyan’s facebook broadcasts alone drew a vewiership of about 800,000, equal to about a quarter of the country’s population.) The street protests successfully pushed Sargsyan to step down.


But the prime minister role has yet to be determined. During the first week of May, Sargsyan’s republican party, which still holds a majority in parliament, voted against Pashinyan’s attempt to step into the role, but ongoing street protests have pushed the party to back Pashinyan’s candidacy. Subtle appeals by the republican party for Russian intervention have been rejected, and the next stage of the election process will occur on May 8th . The party has reluctantly agreed to back Pashinyan, though it remains to be seen whether or not they will follow through on their stated intentions or ultimately support his anti-corruption agenda.

Over the past several weeks, statements have been published by the United Nations and by the European Union voicing support for the peaceful expression of democracy in

Armenia, and Russia has shown no signs of backing the republican party or intervening to condemn the street protests or prevent Pashinyan’s candidacy. The country appears to be on track to a peaceful democratic resolution, but the results of the both the election and the agenda have yet to be determined. What Mr. Pashinyan calls a “revolution of the people” may or may not translate into a mandate for governance.

Join us—and UN observers-- as we follow the development of these events. By May 8th we’ll have a clearer understanding of Armenia’s democratic future.