9 Stories that Will Drive the Global Agenda in 2014

UN Dispatch writers survey the year ahead. A listicle for the discerning, global set. Tell us via Twitter what you might have included, @UNDispatch

 Photo credit: Marcus Bleasdale, Via Twitter: https://twitter.com/marcusbleasdale/status/410486626973134848/photo/1

1. Averting Mass Atrocities in the Central African Republic. Or Not.


In March, the 10 year rule of Central African Republic President Francois Bozize came to an abrupt and ignominious end when he was overthrown by a rebel alliance. The rebels, known as the Seleka, claimed that the president had ignored long promised reforms that would help their constituencies in the remote, predominantly Muslim parts of the country.

CAR was always a weak state and it quickly descended into lawlessness. The limited state services that existed before the overthrow evaporated. The rebel leader disbanded the alliance and tried to integrate many of its members into the armed forces. That did not work. Rather, a creeping ethnic based warlordism took hold, with the mostly Muslim ex-Seleka attacking Christian communities, and Christian militias attacking Muslim communities. The attacks were so brutal that a UN official warned that genocide might befall the country.

In December, the Security Council approved the expansion of an African Union led force in CAR, to be backed by a French force of about 1,000 empowered to undertake aggressive action to protect civilians.  The French forces deployed quickly and for the time being are helping to enforce a modicum of calm in the capital city if Bangui. Meanwhile, it will take several months for the full contingent of African Union troops to arrive.

The Security Council acted quickly in the face of mass unfolding mass atrocities. A key question heading into 2014 is whether or not this force can effectively prevent atrocities while creating new facts on the ground that would support a political process to restore order to CAR.  If so, this would be an example of the international community coming together to avert mass atrocity. If not, it we may be facing the first genocide of this decade.

–Mark Leon Goldberg

Soldiers unload the remains of a peacekeeper killed trying to protect civilians, credit UNMISS.

2. Averting Mass Atrocities in South Sudan, Or Not. 


Going into the new year, the fragile state of South Sudan looks to be completely broken. The country is on the verge of a bloody sectarian war. So far the UN estimates that around 1,000 people have been killed and tens of thousands have been displaced, and things don’t appear to be slowing down.

The conflict is pitting two large ethnic groups, the Dinka and Nuer, against each other. The Dinka and the Nuer joined together in the fight for South Sudan’s independence, which was gained in July 2011, but the two groups have a long history of discord.  In mid-December President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, accused his main political rival Riek Machar, a Nuer, of fomenting a coup. That set off a series of attacks and reprisals that is ongoing today and quickly spiraling out of control.

About 7,500 peacekeepers from the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) are unable to keep a lid on the brewing conflict, though they are sheltering about 45,000 civilians caught in the crossfire. Last week an estimated 2,000 heavily armed Nuer assailants overran a UNMISS base to get at Dinka who had taken refuge. Two peacekeepers were killed along with at least 20 civilians. Ban Ki Moon wants to send re-enforcements to help bolster UNISS’s ability to protect civilians. It appears, however, that the amount of civilians in desperate need of protection may eclipse the resources available to UN Peacekeeping.

The conflict in South Sudan has been a long time coming, and seems to be only gaining steam. This summer President Kiir ousted his entire governing cabinet, including Macher.  Things came to a head on December 15  when Kiir accused Machar of attempting a coup. Machar denied this, but has declared that Kiir is not a legitimate leader, and has insinuated that Kiir is inciting violence. Kiir has stated that he is open to talks with Machar, but his words have yet to be turned into action.

It is not clear what is next for the future of the youngest country on the planet, but it is certain 2014 will be a defining year for South Sudan. It does not bode well that things have so quickly turned from a tense political standoff to extraordinarily violent conflict.

–Amanda Sperber

Syrian refugees stream across a newly opened border bridge. Credit: UN Refugee Agency.

3. A Make Or Get More Broken Year for Syria


The statistics are staggering. 120,000 killed. 7 million affected inside Syria, including nearly 5 million displaced internally. Over 2 million have fled to other countries.

Those numbers are only increasing.

Still, to a limited extent, there is some sense of progress on diplomatic stage for the fact that the international community is more united around Syria than it has been since the conflict erupted three years ago. This is not to say they are fully united around an international diplomatic solution to the conflict —  only that the USA, Russia and other major players are less divided than they have been in the past. In September, they even found a way to work together effectively at the Security Council in a successful bid to press Syria to hand over its chemical weapons stockpiles to international investigators.

A key question going into 2014 will be whether or not that unity around the Syria chemical weapons deal can be harnessed to help achieve an international diplomatic and political resolution to the Syrian conflict.  One person pushing hard for this is Lakdhar Brahimi, the joint UN-Arab League envoy. He has set a target date for talks between opposition forces, the Syrian government and key regional and international players to take place in Swiss resort town of Montreux.  That meeting was originally scheduled for last June. If it happens at all, it will happen in January 2014. And if it happens, there could be some small indication that there just may be a way out of this calamity. If it fails, the status quo will continue. That means more death, destruction and suffering for the people of Syria.

–Mark Leon Goldberg



4. Can The International Criminal Court Survive Uhuru Kenyatta? 


In 2014, Uhuru Kenyatta should have the dubious distinction of becoming the first sitting head of state in the history of the world to face trial on war crimes charges. He may not, though, because rampant witness tampering has forced the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to request an adjournment of his trial.

Kenyatta is wanted by the ICC for crimes against humanity allegedly committed under his direction following Kenya’s disputed national elections in 2007. The prosecution contends that as an opposition leader he funded and planned attacks against rival political and ethnic factions.  He was indicted by the ICC in March 2011, but that did not stop him from becoming narrowly elected president one year later.

Kenyatta’s trial was scheduled to commence in February. Over the past year he has put the ICC on trial, arguing that it is a colonialist institution that only prosecutes Africans. He led a continent-wide effort to discredit the court, and helped pass a resolution at the African Union demanding that heads of state remain immune from ICC prosecution.

Still, the ICC was founded on the ideal that no individual is above prosecution, no matter how powerful. The ICC ignored the African Union action, but it could not ignore the fact that witnesses were recanting their testimony. The prosecutor’s decision to stay the trial was reasonable considering she could not secure conviction without witnesses testimony. That is a decision that prosecutors make all the time around the world. But the stakes are considerably higher considering that the accused is a head of state.

Unless something changes, this case shows that presidents can use the tools of state power to manipulate the ICC to their advantage. This is a terrible lesson going into 2014.

–Mark Leon Goldberg

thnic Arakanese with weapons walking away from a village in flames while a soldier stands by. Arakan State, Burma, June 2012. © 2012 Private/HRW

5. Ethnic Tensions Boil Over in South East Asia


Southeast Asia has witnessed an uptick in ethnic violence in 2013, with the worsening situation between Burma’s majority Buddhist population and its Muslim minority grabbing most of the headlines. The human rights situation in Burma may have improved since the military junta began to ease up on its strict control of the state in 2010, but conditions for the 9 percent of Burma’s population that identifies as Muslim has worsened.

Over 200 Muslims have been killed since violence broke out in Rakhine Province in June of 2012, while the government continues to turn a largely blind eye to the persecution of the Muslim minority by their Buddhist neighbors. Firebrand Buddhist priests sing the praises of the nationalist 969 movement, which advocates in favor of eliminating Muslims from the nation entirely.

Burma is not the only Southeast Asian nation that is struggling with racial problems. Rhetoric against the Vietnamese is growing stronger in Cambodia, after Cambodian National Rescue Party leader Sam Rainsy ran on a platform that depended in no small part on criticism of the Southeast Asian nation’s more powerful neighbor.

Cambodia is host to a number of Vietnamese immigrants, many of whom are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the uptick in rhetoric against them.

Even Cambodians who speak in favor of racial tolerance are coming under fire: prominent human rights activist Ou Virak has recently been hit with a Facebook firestorm,  after he asked that Rainsy cease his criticism of the Vietnamese.

Ethnic discord is only getting more intense in much of South East Asia. In 2014, these tensions in Cambodia may sow instability across the region.

–Faine Greenwood


Screen shot 2013-12-24 at 10.45.19 AM

6. Fraught Elections in Mozambique


For decades, Mozambique was a quintessential failed state as successive internal conflicts took their toll on the country’s infrastructure and population. A peace treaty between the major warring parties of Frelimo and Renamo put an end to the fighting in 1992. The passing of time, major resource discoveries, and massive flows of foreign direct investment helped turn Mozambique’s economy around and transform the country into a darling of international aid.

That was until this year.

Failed political negotiations led to Renamo disavowing the 1992 peace agreement that ended the civil war. Since then while formal fighting has not reemerged, general insecurity has as kidnapping and civilian attacks by Renamo becomes more common and Frelimo continues to carry out controversial raids on Renamo bases.

All of these developments are ahead of provincial, parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for October. Due to constitutional term limits, Mozambique is slated for a new president regardless of who wins the election. But the trend towards violence, particularly by the minority opposition of Renamo, puts into question whether Mozambique can sustain its post-conflict record of peaceful elections. Even if the elections are peaceful, whoever is elected in inheriting quite a large political mess.

One thing is certain: with so much at stake in terms of economic investment and extractive resource holdings, there are far more international players both in the West and the East who have a key interest in the outcome of these elections than in the past. The 2014 elections may just be the litmus test that tells us whether Mozambique can weather political storms or if like other African countries before it, it will find its vast natural wealth to be far more a burden than a blessing.

–Kimberly Curtis



Image from flickr user Juhan Sonin under a CC license

7. Drone Journalism


You saw that dramatic footage taken by a drone of the protests in Bangkok and Kiev, and you’ve likely been deluged with messages from the likes of Jeff Bezos to Dennis Kuchinich as well on the topic of drones. They may fascinate or terrify you, but they’re here to stay — and one sector that stands to win big from drones will be journalists.

Photographers and videographers are already using drones to grab impressive aerial footage at rock-bottom prices. The consumer drone hobby is limited to a small subset of geeks for now, but these machines are becoming cheaper and easier to use by the day. Some will soon ship with autonomy features, meaning that journalists won’t have to be talented pilots to use them.

Journalists will soon be able to use drones to get real-time footage of dangerous events they might not be able to cover themselves, such as protests, warfare, or hostage situations. Environmental reporters will be able to check out what the status of a coral reef or a forest is for themselves, instead of relying on satellite footage or the word of authorities. Inspecting hard-to-reach areas like protected refugee camps or high-up archaeological sites will become significantly easier.

We don’t know the humanitarian implications of drones yet, but as the UN proved when it deployed surveillance drones into the DR Congo in November, the revolution is already upon us. Smart journalists around the world will jump on board.

— Faine Greenwood

.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks at the Brookings Institution's 10th annual Saban Forum, 'Power Shifts: U.S.-Israel Relations in a Dynamic Middle East,' in Washington, D.C., on December 7, 2013. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

8. A Deadline for the Two-State Solution


This summer, under the prodding cudgel of the apparently indefatigable US Secretary of State, Israeli and Palestinian leaders held their first direct negotiations in three years. John Kerry gave the Israelis and Palestinians a 9 month deadline to reach a final agreement–29 April, to be precise.

This is an ambitious goal. It is far from certain that the two sides can reach an agreement that establishes the boundaries of Palestine and the status of Palestinian refugees, provides guarantees for Israeli security and ends the occupation.  Still, John Kerry–and by extension Barack Obama — have invested personally in the successful outcome of these negotiations.

The success or failure of these negotiations are, of course, of principal concern to the parties involved. But the success or failure could also have profound implications for the United Nations. At the Americans’ request, the Palestinian Authority has suspended its push for recognition at the United Nations and full membership to UN agencies like the World Health Organization or International Atomic Energy Agency. However, should the negotiations with Israel break down, the Palestinian authority will very likely seek membership and recognition at UN bodies.

Current US law prohibits American funding to any UN entity that admits Palestine as member. In 2011, this forced the US to withhold funding to UNESCO which in turn caused the USA to lose its vote in UNESCO’s governing body in November. Unless these laws are amended, the USA will automatically suspend its funding to organizations like the WHO and IAEA should Palestine become members.

That would be a disaster for these agencies, not to mention undermine US security interests. One way to avoid this outcome is for Congress to amend these decades old laws, but Congress can’t do much of anything these days (and it’s an election year).

So, a lot is riding on the outcome of these negotiations–and not just for the parties involved.

–Mark Leon Goldberg 

French soldiers in CAR. Crédit : EMA / ECPAD


9. France in Africa


With dismal popularity ratings on the home front, French President Francois Hollande has found one policy area where he is able to demonstrate leadership: military interventions in former colonies.

Following a widely praised intervention in Mali that began in early 2013, Hollande’s government moved very swiftly to deploy thousands of French soldiers in the Central African Republic, where intercommunal violence has spiraled out of control. However, unlike Mali, where the capital city was shielded from violence and warfare, and a modicum of stability was maintained, the Central African Republic is in complete tatters. In a country where Muslims represent approximately 15% of the population, the Seleka government has little to no legitimacy. Hundreds have been killed in the capital and other regional cities, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced into makeshift camps with little to no security.

One of the primary roles of the French military operation – to carry out a Disarmament, demobilization, “repatriation” and reintegration (DDRR) – is the fifth attempt in 15 years to disarm the population. Unlike in Mali, where a majority of the political leadership was supportive of the French intervention, and the “enemy” lines were clear, the current president of CAR, Michel Djotodia (installed by the Seleka following the March 2013 coup), is a polarizing figure.

The role of the French military is a complex and dangerous one. In the last few days, violent anti-French demonstrations have taken place in the capital, bringing back memories from Cote d’Ivoire in 2004/2005, when the French were the target of public ire. In addition to the military challenge on the ground, the French government will need to ensure that a broader coalition of international support is developed in 2014, lessening its relative isolation on the ground, which , in turn, will help diffuse some of the most pointed public opinion criticism in France.

–Penelope Chester


Image credits:

1 An iconic image of the recent CAR troubles from the acclaimed photographer Marcus Bleasdale, Via his excellent Twitter account; 2 Soldiers unload the remains of a peacekeeper killed trying to protect civilians, credit UNMISS; 3  a classic photo from the UN Refugee Agency, after a border bridge crossing from Syria opened; 4 Uhuru Kenyatta, via Wikimedia commons. 5 Ethnic Arakanese with weapons walking away from a village in flames while a soldier stands by. Arakan State, Burma, June 2012. © 2012 Private/HRW; 7 Image from flickr user Juhan Sonin under a CC license; 8 John Kerry delivers remarks at the Brookings Institution’s 10th annual Saban Forum,  [State Department photo/ Public Domain]; 9) French soldiers in CAR. Crédit : EMA / ECPAD via French Armed forces Facebook Page