Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday, 23 November 2015

In aftermath of the Paris attacks

The world was shocked and rocked by the Paris terror attacks last week. How to make sense of it, and will a successful Paris climate conference offset the gloom?


People around the world are rightly shocked, angry and outraged by the terror attacks in Paris last week.

This is coupled by the fear that what happened in Paris could take place nearer to many other places.  Southeast Asia has been and is no exception.

The Paris events are likely to have serious long-term effects.  There is a feeling of a milestone having been created, just as the 11September events in New York. 

In the immediate term, they will also cast a shadow on the UN Climate Conference (dubbed the COP21) that will open with a Summit on 30 November and then continue to 11 December.

The French government is determined that the 21st Conference of Parties of the UN Framework on Climate Change Convention will continue as scheduled.

Will last week’s attacks distract from the complicated final negotiations, or help to build determination to make the conference a success?

Many articles have been written about the terror attacks. One of the most in-depth analysis I found was by Roberto Savio, founder and President Emeritus of the media agency Inter Press Service.

In his newsletter The Other News, Savio writes that with the growth of education and the arrival of Internet, millions of educated and unemployed (Muslim) youth have felt that the West had a great historical responsibility for their lives without a future.

He makes three reflections.   First, “the West tends to ignore the fact that all that is happening today is due to three interventions: in Iraq, Syria and Libya. All three were intended to bring about a change of regime, and eliminate…dictators Hussein, Assad and Gaddafi, always in the name of democracy and freedom.

“But there was never a follow-up plan after the intervention, and the vacuum left by the dictators is there to be seen.”

To add to what Savio wrote, the West had a simplistic view that with the overthrow of a dictator with Western invasion or with support to local opposition groups, somehow the country concerned would transform into a democratic and inclusive society, friendly to the West and responsive to people’s needs.

Alas, this simplistic view was challenged by reality.  The political vacuum was filled by a variety of political, religious, tribal and other groups jostling to take over, and many hostile to the Western powers that had carried out the regime change.

Some of the groups now labelled terrorists had earlier been supported by the West during the period of regime change in the expectation that they would contribute to the ouster of the dictatorial regime.  

A second reflection is about the situation of some Muslims in Europe, who became attracted to the terrorist groups. 

Ten years ago, the ghettos of Paris were shaken by a sudden 20-day revolt.  Reports from the ghettos speak of unemployed youth shunned by French society. Since then, frustration has only increased, and the same can be said of many young Muslim people all over Europe. This is fertile ground for recruitment into extremist groups.

The third reflection by Savio is that the West is now tragically in a no-win situation:  “If it intervenes militarily, it will deepen the conviction that it is the real enemy of the Arab world.  Its military might can put the Islamic State down, but to diffuse the frustration and the spirit of revenge behind terrorism is another matter.”

The beneficiaries of the Paris events will be xenophobic and right-wing parties, Savio says, which can also now call to close Europe to refugees.

The Savio analysis points to two immediate losers:  the influx of refugees by the thousands that are now likely to see the doors of more European countries closing, and the ordinary and innocent Muslims in the West subjected to an increase in Islamophobia, prejudice and even violence. If this happens there would be even more polarisation. 

This analysis is basically pessimistic and it may be natural to see the immediate future as bleak. 

The pledges by world leaders as they met at the G20 (in Turkey), APEC (Manila) and Asean- East Asia Summit (Kuala Lumpur) to cooperate to fight terrorism and to build solidarity are an important firming up of resolve.

But as the hard power of the military shows itself in the next days and week, the second track of the building up of tolerance, dialogue and inclusion should be given the same prominence.  In the current atmosphere of fear, this will be an immense task.

One achievable bright spark that could being cheer to the world is if the COP21 succeeds in giving birth to the Paris Agreement on climate change, aimed at tackling the biggest threat to environmental and human survival.

But it is no easy task to conclude the negotiations in just two weeks.  On the table are three documents –  a draft agreement on post-2020 climate actions, a draft decision, to adopt it and another decision on what to do before 2020.  

Among the sticky issues to be resolved are:

n  How to differentiate the responsibilities of developed and developing countries?

n  How to ensure that developing countries obtain adequate finance and technology to support their climate actions, as legally promised in the Climate Convention?

n  What will be the rules anchoring the climate actions that countries are pledging; for example, will they be legally binding, and how will they be reviewed?  

n  Will there be more than lip service paid to a mechanism to financially support developing countries for “loss and damage” caused by climate change?

n  How legally binding and in which ways will the Paris agreements be?

n  Will the Climate Convention itself remain intact or be changed drastically following the Paris outcomes?  

These major issues have been debated for years now and it will be quite a miracle to have a fair and transparent process that eventually leads to an agreement that everyone can live with, even if they are not entirely happy with. 

If this good development happens, it will to some extent offset the horrible events of last week and bring some cheer to Paris and the world.