Lowy Institute

The Modi Government’s quest to ensure women’s safety in India has resulted in a ‘panic button’ policy. From 1 January next year, all mobile phones sold in India must be equipped with panic button technology. From 2018, all mobile phones must have GPS tracking.

Indian government ministers were quick to praise Modi’s announcement. Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi, described the built-in panic button as a ‘game changer’. Communications and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said: ‘technology is solely meant to make human life better and what better than using it for the security of women?’.

Women's safety rose to the top of the policy agenda in India after the globally publicised gang rape of Jyoti Singh on 16 December 2012. When the news of Singh’s assault hit the media, protests swept across New Delhi and India, enduring beyond her death two weeks after the attack. In a nation frustrated by pervasive patriarchal norms,  protesters angrily demanded the government take action.

The case triggered a series of legislative changes. In 2013, stricter laws including the death penalty were passed through the Lok Sabha (Lower House) and Rajya Sabha (Upper House). Six ‘fast track’ courts were established in Delhi to deal with crimes against women. A women-only police hotline was introduced, as were women-only counters at police stations. Reporting of sexual harassment (or, ‘eve teasing’, the euphemism common in India), sexual assault, and rape increased. Between 2013 and 2014 alone, reporting increased as much as 15 per cent.

But while the institutional environment for reporting crime by women had improved,  India’s archaic and under-resourced courts mean progress through the judicial system is slow, often resulting in no conviction. It is no surprise then, that Modi is scrambling for new solutions to the problem of women’s safety in India.

In a country where mobile phone ownership is the second highest in the world, ordering a mandated panic button is one way to ‘protect’ women across the country. In the event of an assault, a woman will be able to trigger the panic function by keeping a finger pressed on the number '5' or '9' on a phone's keypad. This will alert the closest registered emergency contacts who can raise an alarm with authorities. Little more detail about the panic button is known.

There has been much praise for Modi for his #DigitalIndia panic button solution, especially by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, which began advocating for the button two years ago. But it is not without its critics. Read More

Firstly, women’s rights activists argue that it is a reactive policy and makes no substantial contribution to improving safety for women. This is against a backdrop of politicians and police who have previously argued that women should not loiter after dark, should ‘dress decently’, and take self-defense classes. Activists argue that the government needs to do more to proactively address cultural challenges.

Secondly, there is the criticism of women’s access to phone ownership. In several villages in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, mobile phone use is at the discretion of the Gram Panchayat (village council). In the village of Suraj, mobile phone ownership and usage are banned for girls. In other villages, single women and teenage girls are banned. One villager argued: ‘Young girls get misguided. It can break families and ruin relationships’. With 250,000 self-governing Gram Panchayats across India, many women and girls affected by such attitudes will have no access to panic buttons. 

Finally, there is criticism that government is using women’s safety as a proxy for surveillance. The GPS localisation function is presumably so that authorities might easily locate victims of assault. However, there is increasing concern over the intention of this mandated function. Given the ferocity of the net-neutrality debate following internet.org’s arrival in India, it would be a paradox that a mandatory GPS function is so easily adopted.

Modi’s ‘panic button’ policy does little to address the cause of crimes against women in India. The high-profile Delhi gang rape sparked significant legislative change and ignited an increased pressure on the Government to address women’s safety. The Modi Government is desperate to implement policies that illustrate its commitment to reducing crimes against women to its domestic and international observers. However, critics have noted that the panic button is reactive and shifts the blame to women, that mobile phone ownership is often at the discretion of men, and that the GPS function is a proxy for surveillance. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user World Bank


By Chloe Hickey-Jones, an intern in the Institute's Melanesia Program.


Over the last five or so years, Australia’s public policy discussions on borders have hardly been strategic. Discussions have instead coalesced on mandatory detention of irregular maritime arrivals, at-sea turn back policies, and Australian Border Force uniforms and accoutrements.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection can’t be blamed for border security becoming so politicised around operational issues and strategy. But it is left to deal with the policy impacts of a dearth in border security strategic dialogue.

In 2015, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection produced its Strategy 2020 with a clear futures focus. It attempted to apply a couple of different strategic lenses: economic, demographic, geopolitical, technological, and that ever helpful category of ‘other’. But for one reason or another, this hasn’t generated much strategic policy dialogue about borders and their future significance.

Before we self-flagellate, lets contextualise our efforts with those of the US and Europe. The US public policy debate on border security is no more strategic than ours in its oscillation between demonising migrants and building walls. Europe’s frontline border agency Frontex’s Risk Analysis 2016 offers the world little in the way of strategic analysis with its pedestrian assessments of a unprecedented rise in migratory pressure, an increasing terrorist threat, and a steady rise in the number of regular travellers.

Recent conferences and symposia in the UK reveal that there are most definitely changes afoot in the strategic conceptualisation of borders, and these will have policy impacts. These discussions reveal that a greater emphasis on multi-disciplinary analysis of geopolitical developments is required to understand future border security challenges.

For the first time since the end of the cold war, the world is seeing the construction of an increasing number of border walls. But we are not seeing a return to a impermeable cold war type border security environment. In contrast the focus now is on keeping ‘bad things’ out: people and commodities. We are also seeing a continuation of trusted permeability, supported by assumptions about the safety of traditional hegemonies.

For those who are trusted, the crossing of international borders is becoming easier. For everyone else movement is being restricted. But even this selective or trusted partner permeability is challenged by the reality that assumptions about the safety of the hegemony are challenged. Automatic assumptions about the risk posed by travelers with European passports, for example, are challenged by events such as the recent Paris and Brussels attacks.

Border security measures, in terms of people and technology, are expensive. Slowing the movement of people or goods across borders can br economically catastrophic. So with increased threats, challenges to underlying trust assumptions, and associated economic risks, nations are struggling to find a border security 2.0 strategy that balances economic facilitation requirements with security. In the absence of innovation, militarisation appears to be winning in the short term.

Read More

When it comes to border disputes, maritime borders is where it’s at. With only a few exceptions, the locations of major land borders are relatively stable. Growing global food protein shortage and the finite nature of metal and mineral resources will continue to motivate efforts from some nation states  to expand their maritime borders. In this kind of border dispute, there are going to be definite winners and losses; and no shortage of potential for miscalculation.

For the foreseeable future, bilateral disputes over maritime borders are going to be on the increase. At the centre of this trend are China and Russia. Both countries continue to test international law and resolve th

rough maritime domain expansion. In the process each is likely to be feeding the others successes or failures. The outcome of these expansion strategies will have long term strategic impacts on the future of maritime border disputes.

This expansionism isn’t just about the establishment of today’s physical maritime borders. It’s also about the exploitation of global commons through establishing uncontested practice. China’s expanding global fishing fleet serves is an example of this strategy in practice. The actions of the Chinese fishing fleet today expands access to much needed and highly profitable fish. But its fishing fleet, and its operations, serve as a middling strategy for access to marine resources more broadly.

The provision of border security involves far more than creating a capability focused solely on keeping our borders secure from potential terrorists, illegal immigrants and illicit contraband. Reducing the concept of border security to a discussion of balancing between securing or not securing national borders from irregular migration is overly simplistic. The balancing metaphor in border security suggests that this policy debate involves a zero-sum game, where increased security measures will reduce the risk of negative consequences.

Border security policy deals with a unique operating space, where extraordinary measures are often required to provide a sense of security, whilst simultaneously maintaining the sense of normalcy that will allow economic interactions to flourish.

Arguably, borders now have a resurgent strategic relevance to national security and geopolitics. In response to this trend, it’s time to lift border security policy discourse to a strategic level. The best way of achieving this strategic border security discourse is through multi-disciplinary discussion and debate: involving subject matter experts from international relations, economic, geographic, environmental, international relations and national security.

With the closure of Manus on the cards, there is an excellent opportunity for an increased strategic focus to be applied in Australia’s border security policy response. Such a response should consider a broader range of options that include new third party resettlement options, reengagement with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHC) and further regional cooperation on forced migration. Strategic multi-disciplinary thinking won’t make the complex problem or irregular migration and asylum any easier to address. But it will ensure broader policy consideration and opportunities for policymakers to develop more innovative strategies.

Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library


With the first Turnbull Government budget this week, it is important to take stock of the impact the Coalition government has had to date on Australia's aid program. 

Perhaps the largest foreign policy legacy of the Abbott Government has been the impact it had upon Australian aid. Presiding over the biggest aid cuts in Australia's history, and a now-irreversible merger of AusAID into DFAT, the aid landscape in Australia today is vastly different from 2012 when, under Labor, aid flows were at their highest ever levels and projected to continue to grow.

In many ways this has been a return to trend for Australian aid and there has already been much discussion about the impact it has had on the aid industry. What has only recently become apparent, thanks to new statistics from the OECD, is the impact these cuts have had on our international donor standings. What's been happening in Australia comes into sharp contrast when compared with the rest of the world. 

Overall, 2015 was another bumper year for international aid flows, with official development assistance (ODA) from OECD countries rising for a third straight year to US$131.6 billion in 2015. After adjusting for inflation and the appreciation of the US dollar, this represented an increase of 6.9% in real terms, the largest single year increase ever achieved. Even when excluding expenditures relating to in-donor country refugee support —  Australia was a trailblazer in this kind of aid financing — aid still grew by 1.7% in real terms. This is surely good news for the international aid community, and those impoverished and in desperate need whom this industry ultimately serves. One country that cannot share in this revelry is Australia.

Figure 1: Falling out of synch with the aid industry

Source: OECD QWIDS database. Dataset here.

This chart highlights the collapse in Australian aid we were all expecting, one that is completely out of synch with global aid trends. When looking at a calendar year, Australian aid peaked at US$4.8 billion in 2012 before tumbling by 19% to US$3.9 billion in 2015. Given this is a calendar year measure, it doesn't even fully encapsulate the A$1 billion cut implemented in 2015/16 budget, or the expected 5% cut in next week's budget.

Read More

Table 1: How far we've slipped

Future decline aside, Australia's international standings have already been significantly impacted by the existing cuts. In each of the measures listed in the table above, the first assessing volumes of aid, the second a country's aid generosity, and the third a country's ability to give aid, Australia has dropped three or more places. Given there are only 28 countries in the OECD donors club, this is a significant drop, especially considering Australia had the 8th largest economy and 4th highest GDP per capita of this group in 2014, according to the World Bank

Many would argue that we shouldn't compare ourselves to other countries as we all face different and competing domestic constraints. Another approach is to look back at our performance in the past. Compared to past years, however, our current efforts do not stack up particularly well. Based on Australian budget figures and after adjusting for inflation between 1971-72 and 2017-18, Australian aid will have increased by 68% while global aid more than tripled. Between 1980-81 and 2017-18, our aid per capita will be roughly 6% lower, implying our ability to give has remained about the same or, put differently, the amount we give has kept up with population growth. However, where our aid contributions have not kept up is when compared to the growth of our economy. As the graph below shows, by 2017-18 our generosity, as measured by aid as a proportion of gross national income, will be at an all-time low in 2017-18.

As we have become wealthier, our generosity has more than halved. 

Figure 2: Historical low points for Australian generosity

Source: DFAT Australian aid statistical summaries. Forward estimates based on these calculations.

For aid stakeholders and those that see Australian aid as an effective diplomatic and development tool, this is a sad state of affairs. One could argue that, given our geographic proximity to numerous developing nations, we now have an unbalanced set of foreign policy budget priorities. It could also be argued that voters, by and large, are supportive of the cuts. Our own Lowy Poll last year affirmed that sentiment, noting that 53% of Australians were in favour of the cuts. However more recent polling suggests Australians' enthusiasm for further cuts has waned, and also that the way the question is asked can have significant impact on respondents' answers, particularly when comparing Australia's effort to other countries. 

Whatever the case, Australia's international standings in the aid community are falling, and along with them our capacity to influence the regional aid architecture and global development debates. Not to mention the capacity of the government to do good in the region. 

We'll wait to see this week how much further pain the sector will suffer in the year ahead. I'll be taking a more forensic look at the 2016/17 budget figures as they are revealed, so keep your eyes glued to The Interpreter. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

US presidential race 2016

Easy, Australia.

Don’t let some bombast and uncivil language from Donald Trump change your view of the United States and its intentions. We share a language, a set of values and too many common interests to be anything but friends and allies.

Cover your ears and bear with us for another six months. The rhetoric will only get worse as The Donald and Hillary Clinton square off in what will certainly be a nasty campaign for our presidency. But at the far end, you’ll find us a resilient nation that will continue to be a shining beacon for the world.

The American democracy looks particularly ugly from abroad. The view isn’t exactly pretty from inside the country either, but for people who tune into our melodrama on an irregular basis, it can appear scary.

Today, America has come to a fork in the road. We do this about once a generation. Sometimes the issues threaten to tear us apart; the Civil War, the Depression, Vietnam. Sometimes they unite us; World War I, World War II, 9/11.

For most of a generation, we’ve been on a zig-zag course;  from left-leaning Bill Clinton to a right-leaning George W Bush and back to a left-leaning Barack Obama. There’s simply been no clear mandate from the voters. The opposition has been able to slow and often block progress (see )toward any decisive action.

Into this stalemate comes Trump, a wildly successful real estate developer with an out-sized personality and ego. He’s parlayed these assets into a television series that magnifies both his accomplishments and his style. He has flirted with running for president before but could never gain enough traction.

This time, the stars have aligned.

Trump’s politics have been fungible. He’s widely seen as a liberal on social issues but a hardliner on the military, trade and immigration. He’s not a classic fit for a Republican party long driven by a coalition of evangelical Christians and wealthy business interests. He offends both but he has struck a chord with a wide swath of disaffected middle class Republicans, who feel betrayed by the party’s inability to deliver fundamental change, and the swelling ranks of voters who identify themselves as independents.

His over-the-top rhetoric rallies his constituency which sorely wants a candidate who will blow up the roadblocks and make something happen. They seem willing to trust that Trump is such a character, even if they’re unsure where he is headed.

Trump is the author of a book called The Art of the Deal and, love him or hate him, his credentials as a negotiator are unquestioned. He has surrounded himself with a strong legal team that has allowed him to skate to the edge of the law without getting into serious trouble. Friend and foe acknowledge his use of bankruptcy laws has been masterful —and profitable.

He fills a perceived void as a strong and decisive leader, a CEO-in-chief, in a time when the country is tired of political correctness and compromise. Whether that style will work in the 21st Century world remains to be seen but a healthy cohort of Americans hope it will. 

Read More

Opposing Trump is a familiar political name; Hillary Clinton. She comes with a wealth of classic credentials: Secretary of State for Obama; two terms in the US Senate; and a generation in the public eye. In many election cycles, she would seem a natural choice but this time she’s carrying a lot of baggage ranging from the sins of husband Bill to the furor over her sloppy use of a private email server while Secretary of State.

In many ways, she’s an ideal foil for Trump, who can cast himself as the outsider to her position as the ultimate insider. She speaks in diplomatic tones; he yells and his word choices are often over the top. He promises clarity while she seems to deal in shadows.

American voters certainly have a clear if not wholly satisfying choice. And many voters have already made up their minds. Both Clinton and Trump are household names. But polling reveals each of the candidates has a massive 'dislike/don’t trust' coefficient.

Many pundits see the match up as a chance for Democrats to win a broad mandate to lead the country further left. And a rational analysis of electoral math and demographic shifts suggests that is the most likely result.

The wildcard is Trump’s ability to rally the disaffected who have not always voted. The record turnout in primaries suggests that is a possibility.

The bottom line here is the American democracy is a system of checks and balances that can compensate for the vagary of unorthodox candidates. Minnesota elected wrestler Jesse Ventura as its governor; California elected actor Arnold Schwarzenegger as its governor. Neither state collapsed. Three decades ago, the US elected actor Ronald Reagan president and that went fine.

Having a candidate who is accustomed to playing roles and speaking in sound bites has its risks. One is misunderstanding and over-reaction abroad.

Please take the long view. Judges us on what we do, not on the internal rhetoric that gets us past this painful fork in the road.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Peter Miller


So we’ve decided to build twelve submarines in Adelaide, a decision which:

  • contradicts the only idea that economists unanimously endorse — free trade;
  • ignores opportunity cost i.e what else might be done with $50 billion of labour, capital and managerial talent;
  • had no apparent operational budget constraints, with the number of vessels determined by the need to create continuous construction and;
  • makes little sense in terms of industry policy; there is no hope of developing an industry exporting bespoke ships.

Perhaps the comprehensive failure of economics to achieve any traction in this debate could be understood (and forgiven) by simply observing that the decision was the inevitable result of Senate politics. But that would let the guardians of rational economists — particularly the Departments of Treasury and Finance — off too lightly. The all-too-common failure of economics in policy debates is its penchant for analytical purity. Economists promote economically uncompromising solutions. But there is no point in pushing pure-economics arguments that can’t fly politically. In the face of irrefutably-rational economic arguments, the politicians reply: ‘We all know what we should do: we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we have done it.’ 

Last week I reviewed Concrete Economics by Stephen Cohen and Brad De Long, who address this political economy dimension.  They see the essence of good economic policy as requiring governments to play a major role in determining the structure of the economy and setting broad direction, so they can’t be accused of being laissez-faire, free market ideologues. The authors also support the sort of dirigist economics pursued by East Asian economies, so they have no objection to industry policy as such. They approve of protecting domestic industry while subsidising exports (by whatever means, including an artificially competitive exchange rate), in order to obtain the scale economies needed to compete on global markets. Above all, they accept the need to step outside the narrow world of economic analysis in order to develop a political consensus. This consensus will involve compromise; placating and neutralising vested interests while accepting second-best outcomes, provided that the core economic component makes some sense.

While mainstream economics is often a poor fit with political realities, there is plenty of alternative economic analysis relevant for political economy synthesis. Read More

Three decades ago Paul Krugman analysed the benefits of alternatives to free trade, and got a Nobel Prize for his efforts.  Industry policy designed to promote specialisation could achieve economies of scale in sectors with increasing returns (the bigger the scale of production, the lower the per-unit cost). Comparative advantage, the lynch-pin of the simple free-trade case, can be over-ridden if comparative advantage can be changed over time through dynamic restructuring. This can justify protecting the domestic market from foreign competition and subsidising exports. But of course the industry has to be chosen on economic rather than political criteria: there has to be some prospect that the output can be sold globally.

Even if the political imperative is to manufacture submarines (rather than some more promising product) in Adelaide, economic advocacy might at least have headed off the prime minister’s open-ended commitment to make everything possible in Australia. This autarchy is a nineteenth century notion of production. The modern supply chain draws its components from whichever country can produce them efficiently. The supermarkets are full of goods ‘made in Australia from imported ingredients’. In the same way, during the great mining boom of 2004-2008, half the investment expenditure was on imports because components could be made cheaper and better in South Korea or Singapore and towed into place. In other areas of defence production such as aircraft, ‘offset agreements’ allow purchasing countries to participate efficiently in complex supply-chain manufacture.

But what about jobs? Don’t we need to make everything here (especially in Adelaide) to keep people employed? Overall, the economy is currently operating with a level of unemployment that matches the best periods in recent history. Within this aggregate, major transitions are underway, particularly to adjust to the end of the mining boom. This involves painful disruption, of the same kind which allowed the successful transformation of the Australian economy from its early agricultural base and then, over the past four decades, to restructure out of manufacturing in response to the inexorable rise of international competition. Adelaide was given the opportunity to be the exception to the inevitable decline of manufacturing: the eventual demise of the long-cosseted automobile industry and the dismal narrative of the Collins submarines are the result. While many across Australia go through painful transition, politics dictates that Adelaide should be protected. But if submarines have to be made in Adelaide, they should at least draw on the efficiency of the global supply chain.

Australia is likely to pay a heavy price for this failure to develop a political-economy solution, certainly in terms of cost of the submarines and, based on past experience with the Collins construction, in terms of the fitness-for-purpose of the finished product. As a small country with a limited defence budget in a world which may become more threatening, we can’t afford to leave sensible economics out of the decision.

This post has focused on the failure of economics to contribute effectively to a synthesis of politics and economics. But the main blame should go to the politicians of the two major parties, who have watched this state-based blackmail evolve over recent years. There is universal agreement that blackmailers’ demands should never be met, for fear of encouraging even larger demands. With the election pending, however, the major parties arrived at a formula for total surrender to the blackmail: both parties have been competing to make sure the other didn’t offer South Australia a more favourable deal. A bipartisan solution, in contrast, could have countered the blackmail. Both parties could have offered the same deal: build the submarines in Adelaide, but with a requirement to call international tenders for components.  This approach would have recognised the special requirements of South Australia within the Federation, while creating the competitive manufacturing environment that State needs if it is to succeed.

If the economics was lamentable, the politics has been abysmal.

Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library


The winning foreign bidder for Australia's long-anticipated future submarines was revealed on Tuesday – the French-owned DCNS. The announcement followed leaks in the Australian media last week that Japan had effectively been excluded from the deal, even while a Japanese Soyru-class submarine was visiting Sydney Harbour. Regardless, the press has latched on the potential geo-strategic pressure the Turnbull Government came under in choosing the French over the German, but especially the Japanese, bids.

But as Sam Roggeveen pointed out in his piece this week, the Defence White Paper is fairly unequivocal in what the government sees as the main strategic priority. First, Bruno Tertrais with the view from Paris:

Economic good news is rare these days for the current French Government. So earlier this week, when the announcement that Canberra had chosen the French option for what was termed in Paris the 'contract of the century', it made headlines throughout the day in French media...

Both Canberra and Paris understandably focused their initial comments on the economic dimension of the decision and the concrete domestic consequences in Australia and in France, and there is every reason to believe that these considerations — rather than international politics — were paramount in Australia's decision.

I would argue, however, that the broader political and strategic context of the bilateral relationship mattered, and, perhaps more importantly, that the submarine contract will cement and broaden this relationship.

Sam Roggeveen with an important contextual note on the announcement:

Over coming days we may well see stories emerge of Chinese relief at this decision, and maybe even implications that Australia has buckled to Chinese pressure not to choose the Japanese bid. But one thing to keep in mind as you read these stories is that Australia is still doubling the size of its submarine fleet from 6 to 12. Whether the contractor is French, German, Japanese or other, that is still a substantial statement of Australia’s strategic anxieties, which inevitably centre around China’s long-term intentions. 

Denise Fisher on the Australia-France strategic partnership:

Certainly the French see the contract as more than a commercial deal. French Defence Minister Drian said as much when he visited Adelaide in late February. In private comments to me yesterday, one senior French official noted with some emotion the timing of advice of the granting of the contract, on Anzac Day in the French capital, underlining the poignant historic foundations of the renewed Australian-French relationship that rests on the shared sacrifice of the past. Another has spoken of the news as a bright spot in a particularly morose period for the French, reeling from the terrorist attacks on its capital last year and so recently on Brussels. A little-reported consequence has been the major disruption to the tourism on which the French economy depends.

The decision from PNG's Supreme Court that the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre is illegal will be significant for the country's relations with Australia as well as the upcoming Australian federal election. Sean Dorney on the strength of Papua New Guinea's constitution:

Read More

Once again, the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court has demonstrated its forthright independence by finding against the PNG Government over the legality of the Australian funded Manus asylum seeker detention facility.

In a five to zero ruling, the judges declared that the Manus Island Processing Centre (MIPC) breached the PNG Constitution by depriving people of their personal liberty.

And the judges were highly critical of the way Peter O'Neill's Government handled the case.

The Interpreter followed up the announcement of Australia's new cyber strategy with two views this week. Ana Stuparu had a critical look:

In scattered places, the Strategy ambiguously refers to international 'partners' and 'cooperation,' but leaves the reader wanting more substance. Will Australia pursue more formalised alliances to avoid cyber attacks and prosecute cyber crime with Five Eyes, or indeed other states, as part of its Cyber Security Strategy? Is an effort being made at aligning and facilitating legal cyber interests in this regard? Even in the Strategy's section on shutting down malicious cyber actors' safe havens, formal cooperation is not meaningfully discussed. One cannot help but wonder whether it actually is a priority at the national strategy level.

And Fergus Hanson drilled down into some of the details surrounding the implementation of the strategy:

At a government level, there are solid efforts to strengthen defences, including 'a rolling programme of independent assessments of Government agencies’ implementation of the Australian Signals Directorate’s Strategies to Mitigate Targeted Cyber Intrusions'. After the debacle at the Office of Personnel Management in the US, there is ample evidence this issue needs to be taken extremely seriously. And as the strategy admirably acknowledges, an audit of seven Australian government agencies found 'most fell well short'. 

What are the prospects for Mynamar's new government? Stephen Gray:

Broader ‘inter-ethnic’ reconciliation will require measures that the military will find more difficult to accept. The new government is inheriting a peace process that in September achieved a ceasefire agreement with only half of the country’s ethnic armed organisations. Conflict has escalated in the northeast to levels not seen since the 1990s. To get the peace process back on track, the new government must find terms that convince the Myanmar army that all of the ethnic armed organisations it is fighting should be included in a nationwide ceasefire.

Matthew Dal Santo on President Obama's visit to the UK, and what it says about Brexit:

Here the Eurosceptic counter-argument reaches its most passionate, seeing as the European project's ultimate aim the creation of a super-state that would collapse distinctive national histories into an undifferentiated pan-European narrative. Politically, they say, the supra-national Commission does this with its directives to national parliaments, while a European Parliament seeks to call into being a post-national 'European demos'. Culturally and socially, they argue, the unrestricted right of EU citizens to settle, work and draw public benefits in other member-states does this by diluting the link between citizenship, community and state.

The two following pieces are on the Panama Papers. First, Mike Callaghan on the possibilities of a global tax organisation:

While the Panama Papers are seen as further evidence of massive international tax avoidance and evasion, tax is really a subsidiary story. The Panama papers are largely about secrecy. They demonstrate how criminals — corrupt leaders, politicians and officials, organised crime bosses and drug lords — use shell companies and trusts to hide the proceeds of their crimes. Of course tax cheats also hide their income and assets, but avoiding tax does not seem to be the main motive of many of those caught in the Panama papers.

And Daniel Woker talked about letterbox companies:

Many are still in denial and much is being done to deny evil intent. Yes, it is true that both letterbox companies (in use pretty much all over the world) and offshore accounts are not illegal. But it is equally true that Panama, the British Virgin Islands and other exotic offshore centres are making it pretty easy to keep the secrets of the people and corporations who are the beneficiaries of assets held in such companies and accounts. That explains why a number of former clients of Swiss banks, once automatic exchange of information between national authorities was threatened, transferred their assets to a Panamanian account held by a letterbox company.

This past week, Crispin Rovere thought Ted Cruz's days were numbered as a Republican primary candidate:

Cruz has already lost the nomination, it's just that he and the so-called 'Never-Trumps' are yet to realise it. When awareness dawns, the agony will be fast, acute, and terminal.

Cruz's exposure came from his pyrrhic Colorado victory; his nausea followed the New York primary last week; and the Cruz-Kasich deal finalised on Sunday heralds his final demise.

Will China's island-building policies in the South China Sea 'lose it the peace'? James Goldrick:

If China ejects other nations from the area, Beijing will indeed be at risk of losing the peace. Contrary to suggestions that its dominion over the South China Sea would be accepted as a fait accompli, the reverse will be the case. It will not be forgotten and it will not go away. The other claimant nations will be forced to live with a boundary that cuts them off from their own historic areas of activity — a boundary that is barely out of sight of their own coasts. Resentment can only fester, both at a local level in the various nations' coastal communities, and at the national level in countries which are particularly sensitive to any perceived infringements of their national sovereignty.

Philippines-based journalist Inday Espina-Varona on recent comments made by presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte:

Filipinos see Australia as a regional power, and the US as the world’s superpower. Both countries have heaped praise on President Beningo Aquino’s economic gains, which many citizens say they not benefited from.  Duterte’s supporters also  compare the reaction to Duterte's 'joke' with the silence or muted remarks that have greeted past accounts of grave human rights violations by government forces.

What has gone wrong with economic policy-making? Stephen Grenville:

Of course it is easy to find fault in this latest effort to pick apart what has gone wrong with economic policy-making. But each successive contributor to the debate — whether Piketty, Gordon, Summers or Cohen and DeLong — identifies three common themes. The pernicious influence of doctrine (and specifically the free-market ideologues); the insidious undermining of political consensus through income mal-distribution and the rise of politically-powerful vested interests; and the misallocation of our best talent into finance, with so little apparent benefit to society.

Tristram Sainsbury on recent developments with the global development banks:

When I attended the launch of the NDB in Shanghai a year ago, I was struck by the optimism of this policy experiment. This optimism was still there when it officially 'opened for business' last month. We still don't know how particular governments will want to intervene in bank activities, or how they would react to mistakes. With this in mind, starting small with discrete projects is sensible, as is the rhetoric of being independent from the influence of individual nations.

A very good piece from Sarah Logan on the evolving trade and censorship battle over internet regulations between the US and China:

In an unusually cruel twist for the likes of Google, then, the tech sector is one of the brightest stars of both the US and Chinese economies and is — thanks in no small part to earlier iterations of US policy — closely associated with national identity and values on the global stage. The latest round of battles has no clear outcome, but America's recent approach opens up a new flank. This time, it heeds the advice of its golden industries and seeks to ferry them through China's Great Firewall instead of demanding they stop at its borders, left to gaze longingly on the riches within.

And finally, Catherine Hirst looks at the Taliban three years on from the death of its leader, Mullah Omar:

There are many reasons for the recent resurgence of the Taliban, and Omar is not one of them. Although a significant amount of prestige, legitimacy and power were indeed concentrated in the former Taliban leader, the degree of this concentration and its long-term impact on the organisation has been overstated. Recent gains made by the Taliban show that experienced deputies (such as Mullah Mansour), a breadth of strategic expertise (as represented in the 21-man Rabari Shura or leadership council), multiple revenue streams, the support of foreign fighters (largely Uzbeks and Pakistanis), and a local support base are all important reasons why Jihadist groups can remain resilient despite leadership change.

Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library.


The Lowy Institute has published a major new report on China's behaviour in the South China Sea. 'Shifting Waters: China's New Passive Assertiveness Asian Maritime Security' finds that China has changed its tactics in recent times: there are fewer confrontations at sea with the constabulary and naval forces of other claimants, and more 'passive assertiveness' such as island-building.

Co-author Ashley Townshend says this is partly a good-news story, because it reduces the chances of violent conflict. But in this interview recorded yesterday, Ashley also says that although the tactics have changed, China's strategic goals have not:


After years of moral outrage and stern official rhetoric, the odious scandal of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers of the vulnerable people they are sent to protect may finally attract tangible penalties for the organisation. US senators this month threatened to withdraw funding from the UN over its leaders' failure to prevent sexual violence by peacekeepers and to hold perpetrators to account when it occurs. Given that the US funds 28% of the US$8.3 billion annual peacekeeping budget, it's a threat with teeth.

This latest legitimacy crisis for UN peacekeeping has been brewing a long time. Since the first widely publicised abuses by peacekeepers in Cambodia in 1992, allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation have followed the UN's deployments to crises around the world: Bosnia, Timor-Leste, Kosovo, Burundi, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Haiti, the DRC, Côte d'Ivoire, Sudan and Mali. 

But it is stories of widespread sexual violence against women and children in the Central African Republic (CAR) that have captured global media attention and which may finally prompt meaningful reform.

Reports of children being sexually assaulted and raped in CAR emerged in May 2014. UN investigators recorded numerous reports from young boys, aged 8–13 years, of their abuse by French troops serving under the (UN-authorised but French-commanded) Operation Sangaris. Gross mishandling by UN and French officials saw nearly a year pass before the reports surfaced publicly, thanks to the scrutiny of the NGO AIDS-Free World; only then did French officials begin criminal investigations. A month later, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon appointed a panel to investigate the UN's response. Their damning report concluded that the UN's mishandling amounted to 'gross institutional failure' and 'an abdication of responsibility' on the part of senior officials. In the meantime, Mr Ban sacked the head of the UN's peacekeeping mission in the CAR.

But as the UN focused inward on the inadequacies of its own bureaucratic procedures, new reports of abuse continued to emerge. In February 2016, 120 peacekeepers from the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo were sent home over new accusations of sexual abuse brought to light by Human Rights Watch. Other allegations involved troops from Georgia, France, Burundi, Morocco and Tanzania.

Read More

And then in late March 2016 came the revelation that the UN had investigated 108 further cases of abuse by French and Gabonese forces. The vast majority of victims were children and the allegations included grotesque violence and bestiality by a French commander. Just a few weeks later, AIDS-Free World uncovered another 41 cases of sexual violence. 

Why have peacekeeping missions so frequently been guilty of abusing those they were sent to protect? And given that only a tiny fraction of peacekeepers are responsible for the abuses, why has the UN proved so incapable of holding them to account?

Some blame the UN's reliance on unprofessional, inadequately trained troops from countries with poor human rights records. To be sure, the demand for peacekeepers is at an all-time high and they are deployed overwhelmingly from developing countries. But that can't explain the involvement of French troops in the CAR scandal — including in its most depraved incidents — nor the fact that most peacekeepers do not sexually abuse or exploit local people. 

At the same time, while the vast majority of peacekeepers serve honourably and professionally, this is not simply a case of a few bad apples: the peacekeeping system is woefully deficient when it comes to the local accountability of peacekeepers

The primary obstacle is the legal basis on which peacekeepers are deployed, according them immunity from prosecution by the host state. Intended to allow peacekeepers to operate without host state interference, in practice immunity has enabled impunity. The rules of UN deployments protect peacekeepers, not their victims. Countries contributing peacekeepers remain fully, and solely, responsible for investigating, prosecuting and punishing their own personnel. If their home countries turn a blind eye to abuse allegations, there is little the UN — or survivors of abuse — can do about it. Recent recommendations for 'naming-and-shaming' recalcitrant UN member states and withholding payment for their troop contributions reflect welcome progress, but these are weak mechanisms for preventing or remedying these crimes. 

A range of other factors is at play. Field missions answer to UN headquarters in New York, not to communities on the ground. Sexual abuse and exploitation has been treated as misconduct, requiring disciplinary action, rather than as criminal acts requiring a legal response. A lack of transparency, systematic monitoring and public reporting means that local populations rarely have a voice, and it has required ad hoc efforts by civil society organisations to bring abuses to light. Finally, peacekeeping is fundamentally a foreign activity, involving the deployment of international troops within societies they usually know little about. In her book Peaceland, ethnographer and former UN peacebuilder Séverine Autesserre finds that derogatory views of local populations are alarmingly common, recounting 'blatantly racist and shockingly offensive' attitudes and behaviours described variously as degrading, belittling, humiliating, dehumanising and denigrating of local people. 

Together, these features of peacekeeping create a permissive, even enabling environment for sexual violence and exploitation. A slew of organisational reforms over the past decade has not, it seems, made the UN any more effective in curtailing these abuses.

So what should be done?

Withholding funding from the UN, as US senators have threatened, is a powerful form of leverage. The 1964-65 session of the UN General Assembly, for example, essentially ground to a halt after several countries — including the USSR and France — refused to pay their share of the peacekeeping budget in protest over what they saw as the illegitimate authorisation of peacekeeping operations.

Today, the top five financial contributors to UN peacekeeping provide 60% of the entire budget: US (28%), Japan (11%), and France, Germany and the UK (each around 7%). These big contributors can wield substantial influence. While reforming the system of legal immunities is impractical, their leverage could exact reforms from UN peacekeeping bureaucracy to improve the process for dealing with abuse allegations. More importantly, their concerted attention could help to move attention from the politics of New York to the survivors of abuse in host countries, in the form of assistance and compensation. 

They could also lend their political and financial weight to two more ambitious accountability reforms. 

First, UN peacekeeping needs an ombudsperson, with budgetary and reporting independence from peacekeeping operations in the field and from peacekeeping bureaucracy in New York. The experiment with an ombudsperson in Kosovo provides both a precedent and a demonstration of the limits of an accountability mechanism that depends for its authority and funding on the very actors it is trying to hold to account. 

Second, the extent of sexual violence in the CAR — and the UN's mishandling of it — only came to light through the determined but ad hoc reporting of international NGOs, including AIDS-Free World, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Friends of UN peacekeeping, like Australia, should promote and fund systematic civil society monitoring of peacekeeping, ideally through a mix of host country and international NGOs, to monitor operations and give voice to those made most vulnerable by violent conflict.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user United Nations Photo.


Two month ago I wrote a blog outlining the continued deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan.

The situation does not look any better today. Last week a truck bomb was set off in Kabul killing at least 68 people and injuring 347. A friend of mine with whom I checked, and who was at quite a distance from the explosion, told me she thought their office building was going to collapse. It reminded me of August 2004 when a similar bomb shook my office building, catapulting debris into our front yard. At the time it had reminded me of an earthquake.

Sadly these days it takes a major event such as this to get international (especially Australian) press to even bother to write about Afghanistan. It does not, however, seem to change the West's consideration of Afghanistan as a low priority country – at least lower than others. 

For Afghans this presents a situation where their plight has slipped into oblivion. Out of the eye of Western media the sheer hopelessness is growing. My friend put this desperation in one simple sentence: 'I am not sure how long we will survive this.'

This means a protracted and increasingly bloody war in Afghanistan. Since the Taliban announced its annual 'spring offensive' (Operation Omari in honour of its deceased leader Mullah Omar) on 12 April, it has not wasted time in hitting targets which are neatly documented on an increasingly sophisticated website. While Kabul might have been the biggest attack, there is also fighting (again) in Kunduz and at the outskirts of Herat. The focus seems to be increasingly in urban areas, where the majority of Afghan citizens now reside.

At the same time peace talks are stalling, and the insurgency is keeping the upper hand, the civilian toll continues to rise. Afghan civilians are increasingly squeezed between warring fronts that are showing a blatant disregard for civilian lives. The fact that the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has for the first time released a quarterly (instead of biannual) report is indicative of the deterioration of the situation. Even a 2% increase in civilian casualties in the first quarter of this year should be reason for concern, especially as the figures will likely only be the tip of the casualty iceberg.

Read More

A disconcerting note of this new quarterly report is that it shows a 70% increase among casualties that UNAMA was able to attribute to Afghan National Security Forces (including pro-government irregular militias), despite the Afghan Government's repeated reminders to its security forces to curb such incidents. Though there are still far more casualties attributed to the insurgency, the Afghan Government needs to tread carefully at a time where their legitimacy is low. 

The Taliban continues to deny the killing of civilians, calling any such report 'enemy propaganda' with the enemy seeking 'to hide its losses by claiming a high civilian casualty toll'. They go on to argue that the lack of photos of killed civilians 'in itself is proof that there was [sic] no civilian casualties yesterday and if there were, surely they would have published many pictures'. Instead of course, only 'Americans and their lackeys' (which would be the Afghan Government) are killing civilians on a daily basis, the proof being 'a joint US-Afghan raid in Logar province's Kharwar district a few days earlier'. 

The Taliban's denial on the one hand and the Afghan Governments inability to keep their security forces in check on the other shows that neither side seems to consider the protection of civilians as an important part of winning the 'hearts and minds' of the Afghan population.

Insecurity is continuing to impact major service provision (education, health care) and the economic situation shows little improvement in a country where international assistance is in decline. Aid organisations are drawing down with less funding to go around. In more ways than one, there is little that would keep any sane Afghan citizen at home. The problem of course remains: where to go? 

The situation in Afghanistan has forced at least 335,000 Afghans to flee internally in 2015, with another 228,211 arriving in Greece taking advantage of the Syrian refugee crisis. And the flow continued into 2016. The only problem for Afghan asylum seekers is that they are likely to be sent home. This provides us with a conservative estimate that roughly half a million Afghans fled their homes during 2015. Adding this to previous estimates I made in 2014, would suggested that as many as 50% of the Afghan population is currently displaced in some form or fashion, either internally (6.75 million) or abroad (nearly 7 million). 

No small number, but still eclipsed by Syria. But even if the Syrian civil war is currently worse, Afghanistan is by no means a safe country. Europe's absorption capacity has proven to be limited and so far other countries (e.g. the US and Australia) have not really stepped up to the plate of burden sharing. As Afghanistan entered its fourth decade of conflict, Afghan refugees are realising fast that they had their time of international sympathy during the Cold War in the 1980s. Currently it seems the world can only cope with one crisis at a time, and Syria is the lucky winner in this macabre lottery. 

As noted in my last blog, however, the Afghan war is not going away anytime soon. Sending desperate people home or not allowing them to come in the first place will not solve the problem, but simply shift it. As an elder once wisely told me, if you block a stream, it will simply spill into a new path. If you want to ensure a stream stops, you need to go back to the source. Thus, if Europe feels it cannot absorb Afghan asylum seekers and Australia is not willing to throw open its borders, perhaps at minimum international actors need to assess their assistance levels within Afghanistan. The proverbial Afghan camel is very close to having its back broken, and with increasing pressure by the Taliban on urban centres, and little else positive going in the lives of many Afghans, border restrictions may no longer keep the Afghan crisis contained.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user United Nations Photo.


As Australian digital diplomacy strives to catch up to rest of the world, these monthly links highlight the most creative and effective ways countries are leveraging the internet for foreign policy gain.

  • A fantastic blog post by @Lorey explaining how the UK's UN mission used Twitter (and hashtag #NextSG) to bring the public into the room while Secretary-General candidates were questioned. Note the UK came no.1 in this digital diplomacy ranking. (h/t @mattpdmorris)
  • Lieutenant-Colonel Mark Mankowski is the latest contributor to the Australian Army's blog debate about strategic deterrence.
  • Ukraine’s Foreign Minister answered questions on NATO cooperation, countering Russian aggression and EU relations in this reddit session.  
  • Israel has serious digital diplomacy clout but admits to struggling with engaging the Arab world online.
  • Anne-Marie Slaughter argues it is connections and influence over digital flows that make a country powerful today, not armies.
  • Plenty of lessons in this post on the genius of House of Cards' Frank Underwood's (#FU2016) campaign.
  • Canadian Ambassador @BenRowswell outlines his department’s experiments with BuzzFeed, live video app Periscope, online advocacy campaigns and open-source analysis.
  • Online engagement remains the Achilles heel of diplomatic institutions, so here's advice on how ministries can move beyond an obsession with social media and experiment with a broader range of tech and online tools.
  • The US State Department hopes its new SoundCloud podcast Meet the Ambassadors will help it move past perceptions of diplomats portrayed in film and TV.
  • Pope Francis has become a serious foreign policy player; he is now also on Instagram.
  • This important statement by Ambassador to the Philippines Amanda Gorely (context here) might be the most re-tweeted tweet (766) by an Australian public servant.
  • Former Hillary Clinton advisor Alec Ross discusses messy online spaces, Russia’s propaganda arm and the pain of the departmental clearance process in this Khan Academy tutorial:


The hunt continued this week for Indonesia's most-wanted terrorist, as Jakarta prepared for talks with Malaysia and the Philippines over another ISIS-linked threat in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, President Jokowi weighed in on the drama surrounding the construction of a giant sea wall to prevent Jakarta from sinking.

The hunt for Santoso, leader of the ISIS-affiliated East Indonesia Mujahidin (MIT), is reported to be closing in on a group of around 25 of his followers in the jungles of Central Sulawesi. Last Friday, an alleged member of the group surrendered to police, saying he could no longer stand conditions in the jungle with supply routes cut off by security forces. On Monday, another alleged member, believed to be a Chinese Uighur fighter, was shot dead when he pulled a knife on police. Since the start of the year, four suspected MIT members have been arrested and another 10 have been killed in shootouts.

Efforts to capture Santoso have intensified this year under Operation Tinombala, a joint police-military operation involving more than 3000 personnel. The drive began after Santoso's group claimed responsibility for attacks in downtown Jakarta in January, in which eight people were killed. A push is also underway to make amendments to the Anti-Terrorism Law, affording even greater powers to counter-terrorism authorities. However, human rights groups have criticised the proposed amendments, fearing a loss of hard-won rights and freedoms. In the face of international condemnation of impending executions of drug convicts, and a recent national symposium on the horrors of the 1965 anti-communist purges, it's surprising that more questions aren't being asked about the ongoing shootings without trial for suspected terrorists.

Indonesia is not the only country in Southeast Asia dealing with the threat of terror groups linked to ISIS.

Read More

The killing of a Canadian national this week at the hands of the ISIS-affiliated Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines has prompted urgent action across the region. At the initiative of President Jokowi, Malaysia and the Philippines will send their foreign ministers and military leaders to Jakarta for trilateral talks next week on measures for tightening maritime security. As many as 18 Indonesians and Malaysians are reported to have been abducted by Abu Sayyaf in the past month. Next week's talks are hoped to produce a lasting commitment to maritime cooperation between the three countries, beyond the abduction crisis.

In local politics, Jakarta's current maritime focus is ensuring that the capital does not sink into the Java Sea. President Jokowi this week weighed in on drama surrounding the construction of the National Capital Integrated Coastal Development project, a giant sea wall intended to stop land subsidence that is causing Jakarta to sink faster than any other city in the world. Jokowi, in a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, urged progress on the $40-billion project, which has recently been suspended for six months over bribery allegations involving a private developer and the Jakarta city council. 

The public-private project aims to protect Jakarta's coastline with a barrier of around 4000 hectares of reclaimed land, made up of 17 islands arranged in the shape of the Garuda, the bird of Hindu mythology represented in Indonesia's coat of arms. The so-called 'Great Garuda' will feature along its wingspan multiple residential, shopping and entertainment complexes, similar to Singapore's Sentosa Island resort. The local government has also requested 15% of the area for low-cost housing — which hasn't been well received by developers.

Battles between the public and private interests of the development are now underway. The Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) is  handling a case of suspected bribery over reclamation and zoning regulations involving developer PT Agung Podomoro and a city council member from the Gerindra party. Governor Ahok is moving ahead ruthlessly on eviction of urban poor communities inhabiting areas along the waterways and coastline. The North Jakarta mayor this week resigned over accusations from Ahok that he hadn't done enough to prevent flooding. Ministers, legislators, activists and even Vice President Jusuf Kalla have reportedly spoken out against the project. 

Amid these concerns, Jokowi's statement this week shows a strong commitment to following through on what could be one of the biggest development projects of his presidency. What remains to be seen is his commitment to representing public interests the project as and when it moves ahead.


By Catherine Hirst, an intern in the Lowy Institute's West Asia Program.

This month marks the three year anniversary of the death of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the infamous, one-eyed cleric who led the Taliban for more than sixteen years. 

Captured Taliban Militants, January 2016 (Photo courtesy of Getty Images/Anadolu Agency)

Omar was a fascinating figure on many fronts. Famously reclusive and enigmatic, no Western journalist ever met him and he wasn’t seen in public after 2001. Under his rule, a stringent formulation of Shariah Law was implemented in Afghanistan, including amputation for theft and stoning for adultery. A veteran of the Soviet-Afghan war, Omar and Osama bin Laden were close colleagues and this was an important factor in the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan. After the fall of the Taliban, Omar managed to evade capture for twelve years, despite an intensive US-led manhunt and a $US10 million bounty. He died of natural causes in 2013.

Beyond his notorious exploits, influence, and the mysteries that surround him, Omar’s life and death provide fascinating insights into the role of individual leaders in the Jihadi system.

Omar commanded almost mythic status as the spiritual and political leader of the Taliban. He was referred to by his followers as Amir al-Mu’minin (Leader of the faithful), the prestigious title used by Islamic Caliphs throughout history. His authority extended beyond the Taliban; Al-Qaeda and other regional Islamist groups were also loyal.

Read More

The legitimacy vested in Omar as leader of the Taliban was such that his death was (rather successfully) concealed for more than two years by a small group of high-ranking Taliban members. When the news of Omar’s death broke in July 2015, some commentators asserted that the Taliban was facing a ‘legitimacy crisis’, that the Taliban and other Afghan and Pakistani Jihadi factions could fracture, and that his death had broken the back of the Taliban. 

This has not been the case. Contesting or in control of at least one-fifth of Afghanistan, the Taliban currently holds more territory than at any point since the 2001 invasion. It has even made significant inroads into the opium-rich Helmand province, now controlling seven of the thirteen districts, and threatening the provincial capital Lashkar Gah. Last week heralded the deadliest suicide attack since 2011, with the Taliban killing 30 and wounding more than 300 people in the Afghan capital Kabul.

There are many reasons for the recent resurgence of the Taliban, and Omar is not one of them. Although a significant amount of prestige, legitimacy and power were indeed concentrated in the former Taliban leader, the degree of this concentration and its long-term impact on the organisation has been overstated. Recent gains made by the Taliban show that experienced deputies (such as Mullah Mansour), a breadth of strategic expertise (as represented in the 21-man Rabari Shura or leadership council), multiple revenue streams, the support of foreign fighters (largely Uzbeks and Pakistanis), and a local support base are all important reasons why Jihadist groups can remain resilient despite leadership change.

The experience of the Taliban resonates with other Jihadi organisations and their leadership. Al-Qaeda has been making gains in Afghanistan in spite of Osama bin Laden’s death in 2011, defying predictions this would be a crippling blow.

Similarly, al-Shabab is faring surprisingly well despite the assassination of its charismatic leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, in September 2014. Predictions that his death would mark the beginning of the end for the group have not been borne out. Al-Shabab has ramped up its attacks over the last 12 months, and has shown remarkable resilience and adaptability in the face of the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), Somali Government and US assaults. 

Despite the mythic status of many Jihadi leaders, heads are rarely indispensable to their organisations. Leaders are important, but they can be replaced. Ironically, the fact the Taliban has prospered after Omar’s death is a testament to how formidable a leader he was.


Earlier this month, nine candidates for UN secretary-general (SG) sat in the hot seat for a first round of unprecedented 'informal dialogues' before the UN General Assembly. Over the course of three days, the candidates rotated in two-hour slots, fielding some 800 questions from member states, civil society groups, and the public.

While the public hearings revealed some insights into the candidates' personas and their general priorities as well as those of UN member states, they unfortunately didn't tell us much about the actual prospects of the contenders. There are several reasons for this:

Firstly, and most importantly, as I noted in February, the candidates' chances are still largely determined by the UN Security Council's permanent five (P5) members. The UN has taken steps over the last six months to make the SG selection process more open and inclusive of the General Assembly, but the P5 remains the ultimate decision-maker, and geopolitical realities and their previous interactions with the candidates are more likely to shape their views than a candidate's performance at the hearings. If a performance does happen to influence a P5 position, it's likely to only factor in discussions behind closed doors rather than in any public deliberations. While the President of the General Assembly has touted the hearings as a 'potential game-changer,' even he admits that 'if there are many, many candidates and no clear favorite, it could very well be that the absolute final word will [still] be from the Security Council.'

Secondly, the push to make the SG's selection more transparent, combined with the reality of the Council's role in the process, means the candidates have to play a tricky balancing act in public appearances. On the one hand, the candidates are striving to demonstrate that they possess the characteristics flagged in the UN's historic kick-off letter late last year: proven leadership and managerial abilities; extensive experience in international relations; and strong diplomatic, communication, and multilingual skills. Vuk Jeremic (Serbia), for example, was quick to cite his own accomplishments as President of the General Assembly. But at the same time, the candidates must remain acceptable to each of the veto-wielding P5 members, which often means avoiding substantive positions on controversial issues, such as Ukraine and Syria, or appearing too independently minded. When asked about how to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, candidates spoke in general terms about building trust, and Vesna Pusic (Croatia) even acknowledged that she didn't have anything revolutionary to say. An aide to one candidate told a reporter that the SG selection isn't like national elections, '...where the aim is just be popular. In this election, if you are too popular, you might scare off the P5. So it's a delicate balance.' 

Then there is the format of the hearings themselves which, as is unfortunately often the case with UN meetings, seemed to discourage substantive and comprehensive responses. Read More

The candidates received questions from multiple member states one after another, and each member asked upwards of five questions. The sheer number of questions meant that the candidates often only had time to give surface-level responses, and the time restrictions allowed candidates to dodge thorny questions by running out the clock. Irina Bokova (Bulgaria) seemed to do this particularly well with Ukraine's question on what she would do to support the General Assembly resolution on the territorial integrity of Ukraine, specifically Crimea.

Finally, the hearings aren't necessarily a great indicator of how the race will play out because the field is still fluid. There is no deadline for entering the race, and speculation continues to swirl about additional nominations, including former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd. As UN expert Richard Gowan has suggested:

Rudd may have hoped that he could sit out this round of UN blathering, and then enter the race at a later stage as a bigger-name candidate after the Balkan minnows had gone home. A number of other serious potential nominees, such as Argentinian Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra, are also said to be sitting back to watch events.

While this first round of informal dialogues doesn't appear to have given us a sense of who are the early frontrunners and laggards in the race, there were still some benefits to having held them. It was another step toward a more transparent SG process, and some commentators, including several of the candidates themselves, credit the hearings with increasing interest in the UN. The hearings also gave us a glimpse of the candidates and their ability to navigate competing interests at the UN, introducing them to member states and the public. This means once the appointment is eventually made, the world is likely to know quite a bit more about the new SG than it did about Ban Ki-moon when he assumed the role in 2007. Lastly, the hearings forced the candidates to sink hours into defining their positions and considering their visions for the organisation, efforts that almost certainly will help the next SG get off to a running start.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user United Nations



It took a series of whistleblowers and the resulting toughness from US authorities to force Switzerland to lift its vaunted banking secrecy. It took 'Luxleaks' for a spotlight to be turned on the officially sanctioned but clearly scandalous tax-saving practices of multinational companies. And now we have the political fallout from the Panama Papers, which will force corporate and individual transparency with regard to offshore accounts and letterbox companies.

Many are still in denial and much is being done to deny evil intent. Yes, it is true that both letterbox companies (in use pretty much all over the world) and offshore accounts are not illegal. But it is equally true that Panama, the British Virgin Islands and other exotic offshore centres are making it pretty easy to keep the secrets of the people and corporations who are the beneficiaries of assets held in such companies and accounts. That explains why a number of former clients of Swiss banks, once automatic exchange of information between national authorities was threatened, transferred their assets to a Panamanian account held by a letterbox company.

The intent of tax evasion is clear. The diligent work on the Panama Papers by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) shows, for instance, that 'friends' of Russian president Vladimir Putin transferred billions from the Swiss-based branch of a Russian bank to a letterbox company in Panama. Records also show blatant criminal money laundering in Panama by Mexican drug lords, terrorist groups and sanctioned entities such as North Korea, Iran and the Assads of Syria.

If not to hide something, why would the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, where the Panama Papers leak originated, offer its clients use of a dummy foundation called the 'International Red Cross' (sic)? The muckrackers from the ICIJ checked with the Red Cross in Geneva, which had neither heard of nor benefited from any money from any Panamanian 'foundation'.

The effort to clean up this Augean stable will be arduous, first and foremost because it will not, at least initially, be helmed by the unparalleled legal, institutional and financial might of the US. Letterbox companies were always perfectly legal in the state of Delaware. Wyoming and Nevada now allow the same, and other US states intend to follow. It will take a mighty push from the US federal government in Congress to reverse this trend. A by-now no longer impossible Democratic landslide in November would help, Vice-President Joe Biden (ex-Senator from Delaware) notwithstanding.

Second, the intermediaries to letterbox companies and off-shore accounts are not only banks, now pretty tightly controlled by national regulators and through international treaties and bodies. More crucial are the lawyers, who set up the legal documents and deal directly with those involved. The maze of national laws and rules regulating the legal profession is considerable, and reliance on non-mandatory self-supervising bodies frequent. Moreover, the deeper a lawyer is involved in a client's potentially unsavoury financial business, the easier it is to plead attorney-client privilege in court.

Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that the international machinery to counter tax evasion, fraud and worse through letterbox companies and offshore accounts will soon crank up and produce national legislation. Read More

The process started when G20 finance ministers and central bank governors met on the margins of the Bretton Woods Spring Reunion in Washington on 15 April. Egged on by a group of European countries — the so called G5 consisting of Germany, France, the UK, Italy and Spain — they asked all countries to adopt immediately the existing standards of the G20-created Financial Action Task Force (FATF) regarding transparency and economic beneficiaries of financial transactions.

The EU wants to go further and quicker, including by establishing company registers with relevant data, and automatic information exchange by all countries. The emerging markets, but also the US, are not there yet. However, it is a pretty fair bet that we will get much more light in the not too distant future on global offshore funds (which Boston Consulting Group estimates at being worth US$10 trillion), their real beneficiaries and their legal status.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user The Weekly Bull