Failed States : Nature Hates Vacuum
Failed States : Nature Hates
in Wildbad Kreuth, Bavaria, by Ambassador Mahmoud Kassem at the
International Expert Conference organized by the
Akademie für Politik und Zeitgeschehen of the
Hanns-Seidel Foundation. Ambassador Kassem is UN Assistant-Secretary-General
and Chairman of UN Expert Panel on the Exploitation of National Resources of the
DR of the Congo. Wildbad Kreuth, November 10-11,
Ambassador Mahmoud Kassem © Photo HD/European-Security.org
I) The State's Role: Criteria for
Failed or Strong States
Nation states exist to deliver political needs and services
to persons living within their territory. It is according to their performances
- the levels of their effective delivery of the most crucial political
requirement - that strong states may be distinguished from weak states, and weak
states from failed or collapsed states.
There is a hierarchy of political needs. None is as critical
as the supply of security, especially human security. This includes preventing
cross-border invasions and infiltrations, elimination of domestic threats upon
the national order or social structure, prevention of crime and any related
dangers to domestic human security and enabling citizens to resolve their
differences with the state and their fellow inhabitants without recourse to
physical coercion, through enforceable body of laws and an effective judicial
Other political needs are services which include health care,
educational instruction and the arteries of commerce such as communication
networks, national currency and banking system.
A nation state also fails when it loses legitimacy. One
criteria is when its nominal borders become irrelevant with groups seeking
autonomous control within one or more parts of the national territory.
A further view is when rulers are perceived to be working for
themselves, citizens transfer their allegiances to clan and group leaders, some
whom become warlords.
Professor Dr Lange with Ambassador
Kassem © Photo HD/European-Security.org
II) Failed and Collapsed States
There does not seem to be a universally accepted definition
of a failed state. The most general one describes that " the basic functions of
the state are no longer performed".
The Failed States project at Purdue University defined failed
states " by the patters of govemmental collapse within a nation which often
brings demands ( because of the refugees they foster, the human rights they
abridge etc) which threaten the security of their surrounding states and region."
Generally it can be said that failed states are tense, deeply conflicted,
dangerous, and contested bitterly by warring factions. The intensity as well as
the consuming quality of that violence, engulfing great swath of states such as
the Democratic Republic of the Congo conflict, identifies a failed state.
History reveals a number of common indicators of failed states :
• Disharmony between communities.
• The regime preys on their own constituents (as Mobutu's reign in Zaire or the
• Most failed states cannot control its peripheral regions. The extent of a
state's failure can be measured by the extent of its geographical expanse
genuinely controlled by the official government. Consider Kinshasa and its
control over its eastern territory.
• The state cannot control criminal violence, as a result citizens turn to
alternatives such as warlords or tribal institutions for protection.
• Failed states exhibit flawed institutions. Only the executive fonctions.
Democratic debate is noticeably absent, the judiciary is derivative of the
executive rather than being independent and the bureaucracy exists solely to
carry out the orders of the executive.
• Effective educational and medical systems are privatised informally.
• Corruption flourishes.
• Per capita levels of annual gross domestic product decline.
• The states inhabitants are more likely to fall victims to food shortages and
Wide spread hunger.
The experience of the UN Expert Panel on the DRC that I chair shows that failed
states offer unparalleled economic opportunity - but only for a privileged few.
Immense profits are available from the discretionary application of regulatory
advantages, access to natural resources and currency speculation.
A collapsed State is a rare and extreme version of a failed state. Political
needs and services are obtained through private or ad hoc means. Security is
equated with the mule of the strong. A collapsed state exhibits a vacuum of
authority. (Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Liberia).
III) Historical Background
The Failed States existing at present are essentially Third World States
which have been exposed and affected or influenced by these major geopolitical
• The heritage of colonial era which had lasted long enough to destroy
traditional social structures, but not long enough to replace them with Western
constitutional structures. The colonial regimes did not care . ~ . to provide
them with an effective identity as a new state geared toward a modem
nationbuilding process. As a result, the Industrial Revolution was totally
missed by these Third World States. Their status as European colonies continued
till only alter World War II when these colonies became independent. The most
evident examples in the Middle East are the Levant countries ( Lebanon, Syria,
Eastern Jordan, Palestine and Iraq).
• The end of the Cold War, during which the two superpowers had often kept
Dictatorial-shallow-rooted regimes artificially in power, preserving them as
potential allies through supplies of amis or through ideology-based power
structures which kept the unity of the State intact by force. Accepting western
democratic system was not on the agenda of these new nation-states. Some of
those so-called new states reject democracy of other parties and refuse to
accept the results of the practice of democracy if they fail to gain power for
themselves. They resort to violence, thus destabilizing and weakening their new
nation states. Examples in the Middle East are Lebanon, Libya, the Arab
Gulf-States, Sudan, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
As such the fall of the Berlin Wall may have been one of the
few events in global history that have galvanised the international system to
live the main challenge before the collapse of the Soviet Union and throughout
the 20th century consisted of states with too much power, to the problem of the
21 st century maybe states with too little power.
• General processes of modernisation which encouraged social and geographic
mobility were not counter-balanced by nation-building processes capable of
placing the weak State on a firm foundation. A large number of examples could be
found in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.
Ambassador Mahmoud Kassem © Photo HD/European-Security.org
IV) The ontext and Causes of Failure
One primary factor contributing to state failure is the inability of the
state to control the use of violence within its territory. State failure is thus
always associated with intrastate violence, the rise of non-state actors, an
increased lethality of the weapons employed in combat, a shady trade in small
arms, and a reciprocal commerce in illegally mined and exported minerals and
indeed anything that will pay for the desired guns and ammunition.
Other theories focus on how weak states respond to and handle their underlying
economic frailties. Fiscal extraction, for example, is much more difficult and
costly in big and inefficient countries than countries with sufficient
government capacity. In the 1980s tax collections in Zaire amounted to less than
10% of the country's GDP. Irrational economic decision-making also limits state
capacity. Leaders within that category may either be driven by greed or focus on
expedient actions which could maintain themselves in power despite cascading
Theories also exist suggesting that state failure reflects misplaced forms of
sovereignty. From that viewpoint, Somalia, for instance, simply lacked the
culture of or receptivity to the centrally directed state
V) The Hand of Man in State Failure
State failure is largely man made, not accidentai. Institutional
fragilities and structural flaws contribute to failure, but those deficiencies
usually hark back to decisions or actions of human beings.
Somalia's General Mohammed Siad Barre, General Nemeiry of the
Sudan, General Mobutu Sesi Siko of Zaire and Sadam Hussein of Iraq are but few
examples of how strong individuals or persons who proclaimed guide have abused
what they had described themselves as the personal embodiment of national
Every proper political and democratic institution was an
obstacle to the edifice that they created for their personal cult. For them the
modernising state was the enemy. They wrecked any semblance of national
governmental legitimacy. They destroyed institutions of govemment and democracy,
abused their citizens' human rights, channeled as many of the resources of the
state as possible into their own and their sub-clans' hands, and deprived
everyone else of what was left of the spoils. In the end the state institutions
were destroyed and the already weak states collapsed onto themselves either
through civil wars, continuing violence by different warring factions and ethnic
groups or by foreign intervention and occupation.
One of the consequence of this tragic development, is the
so-called "Domino theory". It does apply to the chaos of failed states. The
collapse of the Democratic Republic of the Congo into conflict since the 1990's
sucked in countries through the Great Lakes region of Africa. One of the biggest
obstacles to peace in Sierra Leone was continuing violence in neighbouring
Liberia. The collapse of the Palestinian authority in the Palestinian
territories occupied by Israel sucked in Arab countries in the Middle East
region and caused them to become weak or collapsed states for more than five
The presence of the coalition troops in Iraq of unspecified
period of time could have a negative stability consequences. Iraq will have to
face an imposing security vacuum in the aftermath of the conflict. The
imposition of an occupation authority to govern the country for any longer than
a few months could incite a violent reaction from the populace. Iraqis should
have full executive powers in any governing authority established after the war.
The current U.S. post-war blueprint, which calls for the establishment of an
international civil authority headed by a high-ranking American with Iraqi exile
leaders serving only in an advisory capacity, will only arouse apprehension that
the U. S. has imperialist designs on Iraq.
There are two factors that could conceivably continue to
trigger an escalation of violence and instability in Iraq.
First, like Afghanistan, Iraq is a diverse society, divided
on ethnic, Religious and factional lines. The Ba'athist regime like the
Pashtun-based Taliban movement, is predominantly composed of one ethnie group,
the Sunni Arabs. Both regimes viciously repressed dissent emanating from
competing ethnie groups, resentful of their lack of representation in the
government. The fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan led to widespread violence,
marked by human rights violations, against ethnie Pashtuns throughout
Afghanistan and engendered resentment and anti-government sentiments within the
Pashtun community. There are fears that revenge attacks against the Sunni
minority by other ethnie groups such as the Shiites, Kurds, and Turkomons, who
were violently subjugated by President Saddam Hussein, could emerg in Iraq.
While it is unlikely that these groups will seek independence, ethnie-based
clashes could nevertheless fragment the country.
Second, The intervention of neighbouring states could inflame
internal rivalries and generate conflict. Any Turkish intervention could be
violently resisted by Kurdish paramilitary groups, deeply suspicious of Turkish
motivations. There are also fears that Iran, endeavouring to safeguard the large
Shiite population of Iraq may also intervene in Iraqi affairs, arousing the
consternation of the Sunni population of Iraq and neighbouring states such as
Saudi Arabia, which has long feared the extension of Iranian influence in the
region. Regional interference is a problem that could also plague Iraq, where
neighbouring states such as Turkey, Iran and the Arab Gulf States could promote
their interests via proxies. Thus, it is a highly destablising affect on the
country, promoting ethnie and factional clashes that could exacerbate disunity.
The imposing cost of reconstruction coupled with the
potentiel for violent unrest may prompt the U. S. to implement a minimalist
post-war reconstruction strategy. The objective of such strategy would be to
stabilize the country to secure America's vital interests, including the
disarmament of Iraq and the safeguarding of oil wells, at a minimum U.S.
material and human cost. Finally, a U. S. military presence is maintained to
pursue American regional interests.
VI) Phenomenon and Dynamics
The problem of the Failed States can Chus be seen as an elemental
phenomenon which, though currently acute in only a few countries, remains latent
through the world. Sociologically, it is characterised by two phenomena:
The first of these is the collapse of the
core of government. In such states, the police, judiciary and other bodies
serving to maintain law and order have either ceased to exist or are no longer
able to operate.
The second is the brutality and intensity
of the violence used. In such states the whole society - adults, young people
and children alike - falling into the grip of a collective insanity following
the breakdown of State institutions.
These internal conflicts are characterised by a highly
unpredictable and explosive dynamic of their own, as well as by a radicalisation
of violence, the irrationality of which stands in stark contrast to the
politically guided and systematically escalated use of military force for which
the mechanisms and instruments laid down in the UN Charter for the limitation
and control of conflicts on the international level were designed.
Analysing this, we find that Failing States are invariably
the product of a collapse of the power structures providing political support
for law and order. This process is generally triggered and accompanied by
anarchic forms of internal violence, general banditry and chaos. Poverty, ethnic
and social tensions, exploitation, poor governance, malign interference from
outside or just plain neglect are important elements to bring about the failure
or collapse of responsible government and civil society. Foreign governments can
also knowingly destabilize a state by fueling ethnic warfare of supporting rebel
forces, causing it to collapse.
We also notice that not only are the functions of government
suspended, but its assets as in the case of the DRC, Iraq and others are
destroyed or looted and experienced officials are killed or flee the country.
This means that international intervention must extend beyond
military and humanitarian tasks and must include the promotion of international
reconciliation and the reestablishment of effective government.
Two principles should be needed here to guide the
international community's approach to rebuilding anew the structure of Failed
1) The International Community should devote its resources and the political
will to help the people of the Failed States to make sure that the future should,
above all, be placed in their hands.
2) Since the United Nations is made up of States, and since International Law
has traditionally focused on relations between States which were not designed to
be failed states, the United Nations imperatively should take the lead in the
political process as well as in helping the building-state structure.
VII) Revival, Resuscitation and
Although a state may fit the criteria of a weak, failed or collapsed
state, history shows that none of these designations is terminal. The quality of
failed or collapsed is real, but need not be static.
When Somalia failed in the late 1980s, it soon collapsed and
this year Zimbabwe and Cote d'Ivoire have moved rapidly from being strong toward
catastrophic failure. By contrast, Lebanon, Nigeria and Tajikistan recovered
from collapse and are now weak.
Reducing the global incidence of state failure and collapse
is essential to the peace of the world, to saving poor inhabitants of troubled
territories from havoc and misery, and to combating terror. Prevention is always
preferable and less costly than remediation.
Accomplishments of the United Nations administrations in
Cambodia and East Timor, as well as the NATO/UN interim administration in
Kosovo, indicate that effective nation building is possible if there is
sufficient political will and targeted and well-funded external aid.
In the last three cases an interim administration provided
security, the key political ingredient, and developed a rudimentary local police
force, patiently trained local officials across bureaucratic departments,
reintroduced legal codes and methods, and helped to rejuvenate and regularise
the local economies. Eventually, the transitional governments registered voters
and sponsored internationally supervised expressions of choice through the
ballot box, thus permitting all three countries to emerge from their periods of
tutelage. Home rule in Kosovo, and independence in Cambodia and TimorLest (East
Press Briefing by the Offices of the Spokesman for the Secretary General and
the Spokesman for the General Assembly President. New York, October 31,
Foreign Minister Louis Michel's Reaction to the Kassem Report (Belgian
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, October 31, 2003.
Panel On Illegal
Exploitation Of Congolese Resources To Restart Work, March 14, 2003.
Final report of the Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural
Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of DR Congo, UNSC, October 16, 2002.
Received on Illegal Exploitation of Resources; Foreign Minister Calls for
Reparation, Prosecution of Aggressors, Great Lakes Peace Conference, New
York, October 16, 2002.
Intervention du Représentant permanent de la France au Conseil de Sécurité des
Nations Unies (République Démocratique du Congo), le 5 novembre 2002.
UN Condemns Congo
'Exploitation', BBC, Tuesday, 20 November, 2001, 15:31 GMT.