Mnangagwa and the military may mean more bad news for Zimbabwe


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Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo

James Hamill, University of Leicester

The military has taken control of the national broadcaster, troops are in the streets and the president is being held in a secure environment. All military leave is cancelled and a senior general has addressed the nation. Yet the Zimbabwean military continues with the pretence that this is not a coup d’etat.

The obvious response to this is: if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck then the chances are it’s a duck. And the sole reason the Zimbabwean military is not acknowledging this as a coup d’etat is to avoid triggering the country’s automatic suspension from the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Both bodies frown on coups.

A perfect storm formed ahead of these events and made military action predictable. The country had once again entered a steep economic decline (not that its “recovery” had been anything of note). A clear and reckless bid for power was being made by the so-called Generation 40 (G40) faction around Grace Mugabe in direct opposition to the Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, the standard bearer for the so-called Lacoste faction.

This culminated in Mnangagwa’s dismissal by President Mugabe: a clear indication that Grace Mugabe was now calling the shots. It also served as a follow up to the 2015 Grace-engineered dismissal of another Vice President and rival, Joice Mujuru.

The coup means that Mugabe’s long and disastrous presidency is finally over. The only questions that remain are the precise details and mechanics of the deal which secures his departure.

Why the coup

Mnangagwa is a long time Zanu-PF stalwart and is clearly closely integrated with the military high command and the intelligence services. Both institutions are concerned that the succession is being arranged for a faction led by people with no liberation credentials but who have been skilled in manipulating Mugabe himself and in making him do their bidding. The G40 now appear to have overreached, perhaps believing that their proximity to the “old man” made them invincible.

This coup’s explicit purpose is twofold. First, it’s trying to definitively kill off Grace Mugabe’s ambitions to become president and to set in place a ruling dynasty akin to the Kims in North Korea. Second, it’s a bid to clear Mnangagwa’s path to power, first in Zanu-PF and then within the state itself (over the last three decades these have been virtually one and the same thing).

What we do not yet know is what counter force, if any, the G40 can bring to bear against the military. The calculation of the military hierarchy appears to be that Grace and company are paper tigers who will have few cards to play against such force majeure and who lack the popular appeal to bring angry and disillusioned masses out onto the streets.

Could this be the end of President Robert Mugabe’s 37 year reign?
Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo

The coup has formally stripped away the façade that Zimbabwe is a constitutional state. This is clearly a militarised party-state where the military is a pivotal actor in the ruling party’s internal politics. It is not simply a neutral state agency subordinate to the civilian leadership. And the idea that this military intervention is an aberration – a departure from the constitutional norm – is misplaced.

Zimbabwe is a de facto military dictatorship. It serves as a guarantor of ZANU-PF rule rather than as a custodian of the constitution. It has helped Zanu-PF rig elections. And it was central to the state terror which was unleashed against the population to reverse Mugabe and Zanu-PF’s electoral defeat in 2008. The military has always been a key political actor. The only difference this time is that its intervention is designed to control events within Zanu-PF rather than to crush opposition to it.

But, a highly politicised military is a major impediment to the re-establishment of a democratic order in Zimbabwe. It has nothing to gain, politically or financially, from democratic rule given the lucrative networks of embezzlement and plunder it’s put in place over decades. Most recently it seized and siphoned off of the country’s diamond wealth for military officers and the party hierarchy.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo

This intervention is designed to secure the presidency for Mnangagwa. So it is hard to avert our eyes from the elephant –- or in this case the Crocodile –- in the room. Mnangagwa is the Mugabe henchman who helped enable the misrule and tyranny of the last 37 years. He was one of the principal architects of the Gukurahundi -– the genocidal attack on the Ndebele – in the early to mid-1980s which left at least 20 000 people dead.

He has also been instrumental in rigging elections and crushing all opposition to Zanu-PF rule, including the atrocities of 2008.

Expecting such a person to now make a deathbed conversion to the democracy, constitutional government and good governance he has spent an entire career liquidating is dangerous nonsense.

Dilemmas to come

Mnangagwa will soon have to confront a series of dilemmas. How can he put in place an administration which has the appearance of a national unity government, can secure international approval and the financial assistance required to help rebuild a shattered economy – but avoid ceding any meaningful power or control? Can this circle be squared?

The best hope for Zimbabweans is that the international community uses its leverage wisely and sets stringent conditions for such assistance: free elections closely monitored by an array of international organisations, the establishment of a new electoral commission, free access to the state media and the right of parties to campaign freely.

There should also be a role here for South Africa to restore its badly tarnished image as a champion of democracy in Africa. It has followed a malign path over the last two decades, facilitating Zanu-PF authoritarianism in the name of a threadbare and increasingly degenerate “liberation solidarity”.

The ConversationSuch a combination of pressures will severely restrict Mnangagwa’s room for manoeuvre. Anything short of that will deliver an outcome which is essentially Mugabeism without Mugabe.

James Hamill, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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After coup, will Zimbabwe see democracy or dictatorship?


Steven Feldstein, Boise State University

For decades, Robert Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe in a ruthless, even reckless manner. Over nearly 40 years, he turned the “jewel of Africa” into an economic basket case that’s seen inflation of up to 800 percent.

Then, late in the night of Nov. 14, the country’s security services detained and put Zimbabwe’s 93-year-old president under house arrest in what appeared to be a military coup. The whereabouts of his powerful wife, Grace, are unconfirmed.

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Much remains unclear at this early stage. Will violence erupt? Is this really the end of the Mugabe era?

I don’t know the answers to those questions yet. I’m not sure even Vice President Emerson Mnangagwa, who appears to have orchestrated Mugabe’s overthrow, knows how his gambit will turn out.

But with each passing hour, it is increasingly evident that Zimbabwe – a country whose politics I spent uncountable hours grappling with as a State Department official – is poised to see its first real leadership transition since 1980.

Setting the stage for Zimbabwe’s coup

For decades, Mugabe’s grip on Zimbabwe was iron-clad. Even when challenged by an invigorated opposition in 2008, he kept the presidency by entering into a nominal power-sharing agreement. After a decisive electoral victory in 2013, though, he cast the coalition aside.

But as the elderly president grew increasingly frail this year, the power struggle to succeed him became frenzied. Two major camps were vying for power.

Vice President Emerson Mnangagwa, who as a soldier fighting for Zimbabwe’s liberation earned the nickname “the crocodile,” represented the old guard. The 75-year-old enjoyed strong military backing, particularly from the veterans’ association, a powerful coalition of former combatants from Zimbabwe’s independence struggle which began in 1964 and ended in 1979.

Last year, the group broke with Mugabe in a public letter, declaring that he had “presided over unbridled corruption and downright mismanagement of the economy, leading to national economic ruin.” Many believed that Vice President Mnangagwa orchestrated the group’s letter as a shot across the bow to warn would-be rivals.

The second camp jockeying to control Zimbabwe before the coup was led by Mugabe’s current wife, Grace Mugabe. At a relatively spry 53, she represented the younger generation, drawing significant support from the ruling party’s loyalist Youth League and from an informal grouping of emerging leaders known as “Generation 40.”

But Grace Mugabe was deeply unpopular among ordinary Zimbabweans, who called her “Gucci Grace” because of her extravagant spending. Plus, she had a reputation for cruelty. Earlier this year, the president’s wife faced accusations of beating a 20-year old South African model with an electric cable.

In September, after Vice President Mnangagwa was emergency airlifted to South Africa due to a strange illness, Grace Mugabe had to publicly deny, on state TV, that she had poisoned her rival.

As recently as early November, it appeared that Grace’s camp had prevailed. President Mugabe sacked Mnangagwa, who fled to South Africa. Mnangagwa, it seems, had a different plan. While in exile, he stayed in touch with his military allies.

On Nov. 14, Mnangagwa’s camp struck back. By the next morning, Mugabe was under house arrest, his wife had reportedly fled to Namibia seeking asylum and Mnangagwa’s cohort appeared to control the country.

Democracy or dictatorship?

At least, that’s the picture right now. Events have moved swiftly in the last 24 hours, and some big questions remain unanswered.

If Mnangagwa officially takes power, the first unknown is whether he will rule by fiat or cobble together a transitional government. It’s unclear whether Mnanangwa and his allies have any real interest in introducing democracy to Zimbabwe. To do so, they would need to hold an election within a reasonable period of time, say six months.

Military coups don’t have a promising track record of ushering in democracy. Recent scholarship finds that while “democratization coups” have become more frequent worldwide, their most common outcome is to replace an incumbent dictatorship with a “different group of autocrats.”

Signals in Zimbabwe are mixed so far. Experts generally describe the latest developments as “an internecine fight” among inner-circle elites and ask two key questions: Which side will prevail, and will violence break out?

In my assessment, the answers hinge on Mnangagwa, a hard-nosed realist and survivor who was critical in securing Mugabe’s four-decade rule. Mnangagwa has an appalling human rights record. Many consider him responsible for overseeing a series of massacres between 1982 and 1986 known as the “Gukurahundi,” in which an estimated 20,000 civilians from the Ndebele ethnic group perished.

More recently, in 2008, civil society groups accused Mnangagwa of orchestrating electoral violence against the political opposition and rigging polls in Mugabe’s favor.

It is also true that Mnangagwa is massively invested in ensuring his continued and unfettered access to power, which has proven highly lucrative for him. The vice president is “reputed” to be one of Zimbabwe’s richest people. All of this suggests he might become yet another dictator.

‘Unity’ for Zimbabwe?

Nonetheless, reports indicate that Mnangagwa is currently talking to several opposition parties about potentially forming a transitional government.

A key stakeholder in any such arrangement would be Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change, who served as prime minister to Mugabe as part of the 2009 power-sharing agreement.

That coalition achieved some success on economic matters, but Mugabe’s party never relinquished any real authority. Mnangagwa was among those who clung to power back then, but I believe he might play things differently now. Mnangagwa is no reformer, but he does need to find ways to bolster his legitimacy. Not to mention he will quickly need to confront Zimbabwe’s massive economic woes.

The choices that Zimbabwe’s political leadership makes in the coming weeks will have immense consequences for the future of a country whose development has stagnated under 40 years of authoritarian rule.

The ConversationReal transitions in Zimbabwe are all too rare. Mugabe led the country to independence in March 1980, assumed the presidency and never left. His demise represents a chance for a political reset.

Steven Feldstein, Frank and Bethine Church Chair of Public Affairs & Associate Professor, School of Public Service, Boise State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A military coup is afoot in Zimbabwe. What’s next for the embattled nation?



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President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace have become increasingly divisive figures in Zimbabwe.
Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo

David B. Moore, University of Johannesburg

Nobody is safe from the rages of Zimbabwe’s First Lady, “Dr. Amai” Grace Mugabe. There was the young South African model Grace lashed with extension cords. 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe’s longtime and usually trusted ally Emmerson Mnangagwa, was next in the firing line: he was sacked because his supporters allegedly booed her at a rally.

The consequences of her vengeance may have led to a coup headed by Zimbabwe’s army chief General Constantino Chiwenga, who is commonly perceived to be Mnangagwa’s protégé. But ex-freedom fighter Mnangagwa has his own presidential aspirations.

Mnangagwa has been exiled from the party in which he has served since he was a teenager. But he is not just skulking in the political wilderness. On arrival in South Africa he issued a statement calling those who wanted him out “minnows”. He promised to control his party “very soon” and urged his supporters to register to vote in the national elections next July.

As if to back Mnangagwa, on November 13 General Chiwenga announced that he and his officers could not allow the “counter-revolutionary infiltrators”, implied to be behind Grace Mugabe, to continue their purges.

Factions and purges

Chiwenga declared that the armed forces must ensure all party members attend the extraordinary Zanu-PF congress next month with “equal opportunity to exercise their democratic rights”. He flashed back through Zanu-PF’s history of factionalism, reminding his listeners that although the military “will not hesitate to step in” it has never “usurped power”. Chiwenga promised to defuse all the differences “amicably and in the ruling party’s closet”.

Although this airbrushed more than it revealed about the party’s rough patches when leadership vacuums appeared, the statement appeared more as a cautionary note than a clarion call to arms. It’s not often a coup is announced before it starts; but once in motion direction – and history – can change. Grace Mugabe may have unleashed a perfect storm and her own undoing.

Soldiers stand next to a tank on a road in Harare.
Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo

All the “shenanigans” that have inspired the generals to consider a coup have set the stage for an extraordinary Zanu-PF congress this December instead of in the expected 2019: that is, before rather than after the July 2018 national elections.

This suggests some people were in a hurry to settle the succession issues for the president, who is now showing every one of his 93 years. Maybe Robert Mugabe won’t rule until he is 100-years-old. If not, and members of his family or party wanted to keep their dynasties alive, they had to work quickly lest some similarly inclined contenders are in their way.

These contenders include Mnangagwa and a slew of his “Lacoste” faction consisting of war veterans and the odd financial liberal. The best-known of these is Patrick Chinamasa. This former finance minister tried to convince the world’s bankers he could pull Zimbabwe out of the fire. He was demoted to control cyberspace and then fired. Perhaps he may make a comeback in the wake of the semi-coup.

The pro-Grace faction includes the members of Generation 40, or “G-40”. Many are well over 40. But in Robert Mugabe’s shadow they appear young, as does the 52-year-old First Lady. Without a base in the liberation-war cohort, they resorted to working with the Mugabe couple: sometimes their ideology appears radical, espousing indigenous economics and more land to the tillers.

If the history of their best-known member – the current Minister of Higher Education Jonathan Moyo – is indicative, however, they are pragmatic; or less politely put, opportunist.

But with Grace Mugabe sans Robert, they would have to muster inordinate amounts of patience and manipulation to steer the sinking ship to the shores of stable statehood and incorporate yet younger generations who cut their political teeth as Robert Mugabe’s rule faltered.

Perfidious ‘saviours’

Yet the possible plan for the upcoming congress – to create a third vice-president – appears not to move far beyond the cold hands of the old. Phelekezela Mphoko would be pushed to third vice-president status. Grace would be the second vice-president.

The current defence minister, Sydney Sekeramayi would be first vice-president and so, next in line for the presidential palace. He is a quiet but no less tarnished member of the Zanu-PF old guard; especially when one remembers the massacre of thousands of Ndebele people during the Gukurahundi.

When performing the calculus necessary to rectify Zimbabwe’s graceless imbalances, remember that Mnangagwa was perhaps the key architect of the nearly genocidal Gukurahundi, now chronicled in archival detail in historian Stuart Doran’s Kingdom, Power, Glory: Mugabe, Zanu, and the Quest for Supremacy. Among the scores implicated therein are the British, condemned by Hazel Cameron, another meticulous archivist, as exercising “wilful blindness” during what Robert Mugabe has dismissed as a “moment of madness”.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that many are suspicious of Mnangagwa’s relationship with the UK. Many suspect he has been swimming with perfidious Albion for a very, very long time.

The ConversationThose waters, in the shadow of Mugabe’s heritage, will take a few more generations of hard political work to clear. It hardly seems propitious that a coup, and the same generation that has ruled since 1980, starts it off.

David B. Moore, Professor of Development Studies, University of Johannesburg

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Caution needed as the government expands the military’s role in counter-terrorism



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Malcolm Turnbull announced the proposed changes in front of heavily armed special forces soldiers.
AAP/Brendan Esposito

Keiran Hardy, Griffith University

The government’s announcement of plans to strengthen the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) role in domestic counter-terrorism operations appears to be a quick and decisive reaction to the New South Wales coroner’s report on the Lindt Café siege in 2014.

The proposed changes may help to clarify some of the confusion surrounding the role of state police and the ADF in responding to terror attacks. However, to prove effective in practice, the changes will depend heavily on the willingness of state police to accept military advice and assistance.

Changes to call-out powers

The major change proposed is to relax the call-out powers for ADF assistance during a terrorist attack. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull described the existing law as “cumbersome” – and it certainly sets a high bar for requesting military involvement.

Currently, the Commonwealth Defence Act provides that the ADF can be called out to respond to violence within state boundaries, but only where:

  • a state government requests such assistance; and

  • the state “is not, or is unlikely to be, able to protect itself”.

This is consistent with the Constitution, which allows the Commonwealth to protect states against internal violence “on the application of the executive government of the state”.

A formal request for ADF assistance was not made during the Sydney siege. Despite the many recognised problems with its response, the NSW police force did not believe its capacity to respond to a single armed offender was inadequate.

Details of the proposed changes have not yet been released. But it appears that state governments will be able to request “specialist” or “niche” assistance from the ADF. For example, they may request assistance with specific weaponry such as sniper rifles or other high-powered weapons.

This will provide more flexible arrangements for state governments to request ADF involvement. Rather than admitting that its overall capacity to respond to a terrorist incident is inadequate, a state government could request assistance on more specific grounds.

However, it appears the process will still require state governments to request assistance from the Commonwealth. Whether state police forces will concede that their ability to respond to terrorism is inadequate – even on more specific grounds – remains to be seen.

It also appears that requests for ADF involvement will depend on whether state police classify an incident as an act of terrorism. This in itself is open to interpretation, and may prove difficult to determine in practice.

Changes to military liaisons

Another proposed change is to embed military liaison officers within state counter-terrorism police units. This will help build a closer relationship between the ADF and state police forces – if they can work together well.

During the Sydney siege, ADF liaison officers attended the police forward command post. In his report, the NSW coroner noted that the role of these officers was poorly understood, and that NSW police could have drawn on their expertise to a greater extent.

Controversy remains over whether police failed to heed military advice that their bullets would fragment on hard-tiled surfaces.

Formalising military liaison positions will help clarify the ADF’s role in circumstances that fall short of a formal call-out. However, it seems the key problem to date has not been an absence of military advice, but a lack of willingness to accept it.

Changes to training

A third major change is for special forces soldiers to provide enhanced training to state counter-terrorism police. This is likely to be the most effective strategy for improving operational responses to terrorism.

The ADF has two tactical assault groups – East and West – based in Sydney and Perth respectively. Realistically, these specialist units could only respond to a terrorist attack in one of those cities, or in the event of an extended siege. Having specially trained state police is crucial if first responders are to deal adequately with the threat of terrorism.

Improved training procedures will enable state police to draw on the expertise of Australia’s special forces, while avoiding territorial issues as to who should have jurisdiction in the event of an attack. They also avoid difficult constitutional and democratic issues regarding the expanding role of the military in domestic crime control.

The ConversationSeeing Turnbull flanked with soldiers in gas masks, as well as soldiers patrolling the streets of Paris and London, should urge caution against an expanding role for the military in public life.

Keiran Hardy, Lecturer, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and Member, Griffith Criminology Institute, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Boost for military’s role in combating domestic terrorism



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The Defence Act will be strengthened to enable defence personnel to play a bigger role in counter-terrorism.
David Mariuz/AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The Australian Defence Force (ADF) is to be given a bigger role and greater powers in combating terrorism, under changes announced by the government on Monday.

The measures – including specialised training by special forces for law enforcement teams – will provide more Commonwealth support to state police forces, which are still acknowledged as the appropriate “first responders”.

The changes are designed to assist in preparing for incidents, enabling a more comprehensive ADF response if needed, and improving the flow of information between the ADF and police during an incident.

In their announcement, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Defence Minister Marise Payne said state and territory police forces remained the best first response immediately after an attack commenced. “But Defence can offer more support to states and territories to enhance their capabilities and increase their understanding of Defence’s unique capabilities to ensure a comprehensive response to potential terrorist attacks.”

Defence will offer to place officers within state law enforcement agencies to help with liaison and engagement. This will assist with “pre-positioning” defence personnel in response to a possible incident.

The Defence Act will be strengthened to remove some constraints governing the “call-out” of the ADF in terrorist situations. This includes removing the current limit on states and territories asking for defence force support and specialist military skills until their capability or capacity has been exceeded.

The government will also strengthen the act to make it easier for Defence personnel to support the police response, such as clarifying their power to “stop and seize” suspects to prevent them leaving the scene of an incident.

“These measures will improve the nation’s ability to respond to terrorism as well as improve the effectiveness of Defence’s contribution to domestic counter-terrorism arrangements,” Turnbull and Payne said. The changes would be made in partnership with state and territory governments, they said.

The government initiated the review of Defence’s support to the national counter-terrorism effort last year in response to the changing nature of the terrorist threat, as shown by attacks overseas. It is the first time the ADF’s domestic contribution has been reviewed since 2005.

The package addresses some of the coroner’s recommendations in the report on the 2014 Lindt cafe siege, in which two victims and the attacker, Man Haron Monis, died. That incident produced calls for a bigger role for the military.

Turnbull and Payne stressed that responses to the terrorism threat must be constantly updated.

The government is currently considering whether there should be a consolidation of the security agencies under a home-office-type ministry that would be headed by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton. There are sharply divided views within government about going down such a route.

The ConversationLater this week, a version of the review of the Australian intelligence community done by former officials Michael L’Estrange and Stephen Merchant will be released.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/b9kr9-6cf745?from=site&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Trump and North Korea: military action will be a disaster, so a more patient, thoughtful solution is required



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North Koreans react as they march past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during a military parade.
Reuters/Damir Sagolj

Benjamin Habib, La Trobe University

Pundits often cite the North Korean regime’s crimes against its citizens as proof of Kim Jong-un’s irrationality as a leader. These crimes, as exhaustively documented by former High Court justice Michael Kirby for the UN Human Rights Council, are monstrous and inexcusable. The Conversation

Grave as they are, they do follow a discernible logic from the perspective of Kim’s efforts to consolidate his regime’s hold on power. Perversely, US President Donald Trump’s sabre-rattling plays into Kim’s logic of domestic power that positions the US as a dire threat, justifying the regime’s political repression.

William Perry, US under secretary of state during the Clinton administration, has contended that Trump’s military brinkmanship increases the likelihood of coercing North Korea back to denuclearisation negotiations. This is the ground that a heightened threat of American attack will prompt Kim to recalculate the benefits of continued nuclear proliferation.

But this scenario is only credible if Trump intends following through on the threat. This now appears more questionable given the controversy over the exact location of the USS Carl Vinson.

Having established the foolishness of attacking North Korea in my previous article, I’d now like to prompt discussion on a couple of points.

The first is how the “irrational Kim” rhetoric limits our ability to understand the complexity of the crisis in North Korea. This creates risks that perversely would compromise human rights and humanitarian goals.

The second is to explore other options for improving human rights and humanitarian outcomes for North Koreans beyond the threat and application of military force.

There is much emotion in debates over North Korea, and rightly so. Many North Korenas have experienced much suffering and trauma, as well as the lingering anguish of the Korean War and the separation of families by the partition of Korea.

This is precisely why analysts need to carefully weigh up the risks and rewards of policy choices: to do justice to that suffering, and to ensure we do not recommend misadventures that could add further misery to the North Korean people.

First, don’t make things worse

Considering the risks to civilians posed by a war of regime change, it is difficult to mount a case for war as a vehicle for improving human rights and humanitarian outcomes for the North Korean people.

The discourse on human rights in North Korea has long been framed through the lens of national security. Policy issues become “securitised” when proponents of an issue area frame it as an existential security threat, of high priority, that requires extraordinary measures and rapid action to tackle.

Because such issues become framed in the language of security, military-based solutions often come to dominate policy prescriptions. The “crazy Kim” argument has been central to the security rhetoric around human rights in North Korea. This locks possible solutions into a narrow spectrum focused on military force and coercion.

Just as doctors undertake to “first do no harm”, so too should foreign-policy-makers be wary of strategic choices that carry a high risk of making things worse.

Many Korea analysts have pointed to Seoul’s vulnerability, and the risk to millions of South Koreans, posed by a cascading escalation of US military action into full-scale war. That risk also applies to people living in population centres north of the demilitarised zone.

As the Iraq example again illustrates, removing a dictator in a war of regime change is not a guarantee that human rights and humanitarian outcomes will improve.

According to the Iraq Body Count project, 119,915 Iraqi deaths were verifiably attributed to the conflict in that country from 2003 to 2011. Another study published in PLOS Medicine journal put the death toll at half-a-million Iraqi civilians.

Either way, this death toll and suffering escalated well beyond the scale of human rights abuses and deaths that occurred under Saddam Hussein’s regime. This is not to downplay the suffering of those persecuted under Hussein, but to recognise that the invasion of Iraq made a bad situation worse.

Could we see similar casualty numbers in a war in North Korea?

North Korea is an urbanised country. Approximately 60% of people are concentrated in larger urban centres. In the event of full-scale escalation, air strikes are likely to target critical infrastructure in an effort to weaken the fighting and logistical capacity of the Kim regime. Many of these targets will be in urban centres, exposing civilians to attack.

We should be mindful of the humanitarian cost of the damage of war to the North Korean economy, industry, agriculture and key infrastructure. Targeting of critical energy, transportation and sanitation infrastructure will no doubt weaken North Korea’s fighting capacity, but also eliminate those critical services for civilians. Food production and distribution networks are likely to be disrupted.

For a country that is already chronically food insecure, any damage to food production and distribution systems will have immediate impacts on increasing malnutrition and starvation. Consider that estimates of deaths from North Korea’s “Arduous March” famine in the mid-1990s sit at approximately 600,000 after the collapse of the country’s food production and distribution system.

The elimination of services for civilians is likely to increase the risk of non-combat casualties from malnutrition, disease, and the elements – particularly during North Korea’s harsh winter.

If such a war ends quickly and an occupation force arrives in North Korea to restore security, casualty figures will be still be high. However, some of the longer-term impacts of human insecurity might be avoided.

However, in the event the post-regime environment is unstable, then casualty figures for North Koreans on a scale similar to Iraq become more likely.

Creating an environment for positive human rights outcomes

Removing Kim Jong-un as the head of the regime does not automatically translate into a win for human rights. A lot of post-conflict nation-building has to take place if a war scenario is to transcend the immediate humanitarian disaster and create an environment in which human rights for the North Korean people can be improved.

Human rights are best guaranteed by stable governance, strong political institutions, legal protections, active civil society, and broad material wellbeing. A post-conflict North Korea in which the Kim regime has been removed would effectively be a failed state. None of these facilitating conditions for human rights guarantees would yet exist.

It takes time and resources to cultivate the institutions of a stable state. It requires many years of patient networking, conversation and compromise to develop a social movement that could evolve into an active civil society. It takes even longer to cultivate a political culture in which the citizenry respects the integrity of the political system even when their faction is not in power.

Without this social infrastructure, Kim Jong-un’s removal is likely to lead to the disintegration of North Korea into a failed state, paving the way for the emergence of another authoritarian strongman.

In South Korea, it took more than 40 years after the conclusion of the Korean War, an ongoing American military occupation, and the development of a broad-based pro-democracy movement, for an imperfect democratic political system to evolve.

To suggest this process could be circumvented in North Korea does not accord with the findings of research into democratisation and social movements. These norms, rules and institutions should ideally be developed by the North Korean people over time, not impatiently imposed from outside by other powers.

It is doubtful that Trump – and, more importantly, his core political support base – has the stomach for the massive long-term, high-cost commitment that nation-building in a post-Kim North Korea would entail.

Where to from here?

One could be forgiven for observing the current US-North Korea standoff as a game played by privileged men in suits on either side, gambling with the lives of ordinary citizens. Millions of lives on both sides of the demilitarised zone and beyond are placed at unnecessary risk through such high-stakes brinkmanship.

It is easy for leaders to talk tough on non-proliferation and human rights enforcement. But it is quite another to bring about international norms in these fields in such a tricky strategic context as the Korean Peninsula.

Unfortunately, Trump’s penchant for military posturing does little to increase the likelihood of denuclearising North Korea, or improving human rights outcomes for its citizens.

Instead, the Trump administration’s bellicose rhetoric inadvertently legitimises North Korea’s justifications for its nuclear weapons program, along with the domestic coercive apparatus that persecutes North Korean citizens.

Guaranteeing human rights in North Korea will ultimately require new institutions, new laws, a domestic civil society, cultural change, and a process of justice for past abuses.

This is a project far beyond the scope of military action, requiring patience, innovative thinking and disciplined strategic restraint on the part of policymakers. And they must recognise the unique strategic circumstances of the Korean Peninsula.

Benjamin Habib, Lecturer, School of Social Sciences, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.