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Posted at 01:34 PM ET, 03/08/2011

No excuses for missing Middle East uprisings

About this blog: Mark Malloch-Brown has spent years pondering the big issues that weigh on the community of nations. As a former United Nations deputy secretary-general, Malloch-Brown has been at the forefront of international efforts to wrestle with climate change, poverty and social change. In “The Unfinished Global Revolution: The Pursuit of a New International Politics,” recently released by Penguin Press, he argues for establishment of more powerful international institutions that stress human rights and the rule of law, and give all participating nations a strong voice. Now, as the Middle East and North Africa struggle through upheaval, a vision is needed for a coherent and cohesive international response. Here, Malloch-Brown explores how the world got here and how it might address the continuing tensions.

The Arab world's revolutions gave the international community two opportunities for intervention.

One came with the possibility that the United States and others might help head off the mounting social and economic pressures by persuading the region’s regimes to embark on evolutionary economic and political change before the protests erupted.

The second is what we have witnessed: a frantic scramble to react to events and avoid breakdown and violence.

As a senior UN official I was involved in both the efforts to provide practical doctrines for how such interventions might be handled and the more messy reality of trying to pick up the pieces when they did not work.

There are few excuses for not seeing where Egypt and its neighbors were headed. As head of the UN Development Programme, I approved the publication of our Arab Human Development Reports. The first one, published in 2002, warned that the lack of democracy, women's rights and secular education was contributing to an underperformance in the Arab world which would be reflected in rising youth unemployment, inequalities and explosive tensions.

The report was a best seller on the Arab street (a million copies in Arabic were downloaded in the first weeks) and in western capitals, but bitterly repudiated by Arab leaders despite its distinguished and highly credible team of Arab authors.

The writing was on the wall. These regimes were living on borrowed time but neither they nor their international allies had the sustained inclination to do very much about it. The convenience of stability, strong anti-terrorism credentials and not rocking the boat when it came to relations with Israel trumped the unknown of democratic change.

So the United States, United Kingdom and Europe as a whole continued to provide generous aid, and other than the occasional rhetorical flourish in a presidential speech, turned a blind eye to the domestic repression and corruption.

When the inevitable comeuppance arrived, the United States struggled to catch up with change. The Obama administration had a good start in Egypt and Tunisia where pro-Western regimes were amenable to a negotiated exit, but whether the luck will continue during an inevitably bumpy democratic transition remains to be seen.

In contrast with the previous revolts, the West and the regimes’ neighbors had no such influence when it came to Libya and Gaddafi, where already lives are lost, a violent civil war beckons and repression has been so absolute for so long that there is little by way of a civil society to produce a democratic alternative when the dictator and his atrocious family are finally shown the door.

At the heart of the new United Nations that I and others fought to construct were issues like trying to avert conflict by promoting early development intervention to put societies on a more prosperous and pluralistic path to head off conflict, or having a doctrine known as Responsibility to Protect, which justifies international intervention through the UN Security Council when a government commits mass human rights violations against its own people.

We wanted to revive the original practical Roosevelt and Truman vision of an organization that could, within a framework of universally agreed rules, enforce collective security and share the burden of global development. Opposed by conservatives in President Bush's Washington as well as in capitals like Cairo and Tripoli, advancing this vision was an uphill journey.

But progress at the UN usually comes through small victories. Today, the Security Council is citing Responsibility to Protect as the basis for action against Gaddafi and has already initiated international criminal court proceedings against him. This is a court that at its outset the United States would have nothing to do with – and is still not a signatory of – but is now willing to deploy against dictators.

Behind the apparent diplomatic bankruptcy of western policy towards the Arab World the more comforting truth is that albeit at a snail’s pace, we may be creeping towards a better managed world.

By Mark Malloch-Brown  |  01:34 PM ET, 03/08/2011

 
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