The UN’s incapacity to achieve any kind of meaningful resolution is indicative of an ailing international system, far removed from the contemporary realities of conflict. When looking for someone who can best explain the failures of our international system, it is hard to think of someone better placed than former British diplomat and founder of Independent Diplomat (ID), Carne Ross.
Serving in the British diplomatic service for fifteen years, Carne Ross worked in British embassies in Bonn, Oslo and Kabul before moving to New York to become Head of the Middle East section and Deputy Head of the Political section at the UK mission to the UN. Becoming the UK’s Middle East expert at the UN, Carne Ross took part in the negotiation of several Security Council resolutions on Israel and Palestine, the 9/11 attacks, Iraq and weapons of mass destruction (WMD). It was, in fact, his acquired expertise on the Iraq WMD dossier, which led to his resignation from the British Foreign Office in 2004. After secretly testifying to the first official inquiry into the Iraq War, Carne Ross resigned from the Foreign Office. Following his departure from the diplomatic service, Carne Ross founded ID, an organisation which describes itself as ‘an innovative venture in the world of international relations’ offering impartial advice to governments and political movements left out of international diplomacy.
Diplomat par excellence gone rogue, Carne Ross’ personal experiences are extraordinary as they are unique. His astute, personal and deft appreciation of the international system made for a fascinating yet sobering conversation.
Why did you leave the Foreign Office?
Because of the Iraq war. I was responsible for weapons inspections and the issue of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction at the UN Security Council. I drafted and negotiated many UN resolutions on it. So I was very familiar with the issue and I knew that my government was lying about the threat that it was claiming, that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction constituted. So eventually, after a lot of heart-searching, I testified in secret to the first official inquiry into the war and resigned at the same time, sending my testimony as my resignation letter to my foreign secretary.
How did you start ID?
Well, it started from a couple of ideas. One was that I didn’t want to leave diplomacy, but I couldn’t work in the British diplomatic service and I didn’t want to work for the UN because, by that time, I had seen what the UN was like from the inside. I was actually on secondment to a UN mission when I resigned. But also I kind of wanted to create something. I had a sort of entrepreneurial urge to make something new, and Independent Diplomat was the result of that. It all began when I advised the Kosovo government on what became the final status process for Kosovo, that was just me in the early days.
What drives the work of ID?
The need and the desire to include people who are most affected by diplomatic processes and decisions as these decisions are being negotiated. Whether at the UN, the EU the African Union or bilaterally between countries, diplomacy concerns the fate of other people, and ID is really an attempt to help those other people be part of the processes that most concern them.
Is there a red line you will not cross when choosing which groups to work with? What are your criteria?
Yes absolutely, we have what we call ethical criteria and we have a quite elaborate test of these criteria, which is repeated on a regular basis for all our partners. The people we work with must be committed to democracy, the protection of human rights and respect for international law. We have abandoned relationships because those criteria have been breached. We are approached by a lot of people to help them and we refuse to because they fail our criteria. It is not easy to apply those criteria, it requires some careful judgements, we consult a lot of people and it is a dynamic thing. It is a very rigorous and constant repetitive evaluation.
Where does ID get its funding, and how does ID stay independent?
A mixture of philanthropic foundations and governments and a few individuals who support the kind of work we do. We also occasionally charge our partners or clients fees for the work if they have the resources. But this is not usually the case.
We stay independent with difficulty – there are constant pressures on us not to be independent. We are only independent in the sense that we take no position on the issues we work on except those of our clients, they tell us what to do we don’t go to them with an agenda. For instance, in our work with the Syrian opposition, it is them who come to us with a clear set of objectives in terms of what they want from us. We support them in those objectives, we don’t tell them what objectives they should have. So in that sense we are neutral and independent. Of course, sometimes donors try to get us to do things, but we are very clear with that: the needs of our clients drive the organisation and not anything else.
Do you think that diplomacy always the answer to violent conflicts?
I sometimes think that violent conflict is inevitable. In certain situations, it can’t be stopped by any amount of diplomacy. I think confronting ISIS violently, for instance, has been necessary. But I do believe in talking, I do believe in communication, because I have usually found that parties to conflict whatever side they are on, have some reason for going to conflict that can be addressed politically rather than through violence. I would rather put it as talking because diplomacy suggests that it is confined to a certain group of actors, like governments or multilateral groups and those are not necessarily the right people to be conducting the discussion.
Under systematic oppression, violent actions may be the only solution. You have previously stated your opposition to violent solutions – do you not think there is ever a reasonable time for violence?
I think self-defence is a legitimate use of violence. I am happy to say that is also lawful under international law. I think if somebody is attacking you, you have the right to defend yourself. Likewise, I would actually take that principle a bit further – I think it is okay to assist those who are defending themselves. For example, I think defending Syrian civilians against the attacks of their regime is legitimate. It could imply that you’re going to intervene militarily, and that complicates the decision. Nevertheless, I think it is legitimate. To take another example, I found NATO’s intervention in Kosovo legitimate because it was stopping the ethnic cleansing of Kosovar-Albanians. Yes, I think that overriding principle of self-defence is a clear legitimate use of violence.
How much has the nature of your work changed over the past ten years?
I think in a couple of ways. It has gotten a lot more complicated.
Conflict has become more complicated. I think the number of actors involved in conflict has proliferated and I think the legal environment for organisations like ours has become much more restricted. We have to spend a lot more time checking the legal framework that we are operating in to make sure we are not doing anything illegal. More and more individuals and groups have become listed allegedly as terrorists, often not justifiably, so within that context, any kind of advisory and peaceful work that we do would be illegal. We don’t want to help a terrorist anymore than anybody else, but checking these things has become much, much more burdensome and resource-intensive than it used to be.
Was there a clear turning point from where international law complicated your work?
I think it was actually cumulative. I think that obviously this push to list individuals and groups began after 9/11, but it has worsened over time. It is used as a tool to sanction individuals and groups in multiple situations, so you have these lists now that are both global, regional, but also country-specific, or conflict specific, and that makes it very complicated to help different actors in these conflicts. I think in some cases that is a pity because those groups need help to engage with other groups and to engage with the international system and I think it should be possible to give them help even if you don’t necessarily agree with their objectives. We need to bring all concerned parties into negotiation, that much seems to be a very obvious requirement.
Do you think that the general public is starting to understand the politicisation of terrorism?
No – I think these conflicts have gotten a lot more complicated and I think public awareness and knowledge of them has remained very low. You take the conflict in Syria for instance and the way the term terrorism is banded around, the way ISIS has become the sort of orientalist way of thinking about Syria – that’s certainly one way of thinking about Syria, but it should not be the only way. I think the discourse of terrorism has oversimplified quite a lot of complicated places and conflicts.
The international system is not working – should we be trying to transform or replace it?
Transform it. I mean replacing the international system, well, it’s a big thing. It’s not going to happen. Certainly dealing with conflict it can be reformed and improved in a great many ways. I am very frustrated with the way the UN deals with conflict. It is the world’s primary organ to deal with conflict, yet the UN Security Council is a highly un-transparent body, it is not inclusive and it is not representative. Four of the five permanent members who dominate the council, and in fact dominate the UN, are themselves actively engaged in conflict in one way or another. In other words it is not a neutral body, on the contrary, it is highly driven by the national interest of certain states. It also fails to talk to the people who are most affected, including groups concerned in conflict, and yet believes that it is somehow able to understand conflicts without that dialogue. This is fantastically naïve.
You have mentioned in the past that the state system is dominated by ulterior motives and the protection of interests – how do we create a system that goes beyond the motives of states and their institutions?
I think part of the problem is an inherited paradigm of how we think about foreign policy: that it should be based on a balance of interests between states and that that is the way to create order in the world. Clearly, we were dealing with a very different kind of world where transnational global problems are actually the most important and urgent problems, whether political violence or climate change, or even economic inequality. So there is a dissonance and disjunction between the way we think about the world or have been told to think about the world diplomatically, politically and the way it actually is. We need to bring those two things together – I think there is a much bigger role for non-governmental entities assuming responsibility for problems. I think governments have got to acknowledge the limits of their own agency and sovereignty in tackling these problems and be much more humble and honest about that and invite others in to make things happen, and stop relying on this very superficial and narrow calculus of national interest which does not sufficiently embrace the complexity of the situations we face.
Expertise is a much-desired thing these days – how does someone become an expert? Can someone who has never lived in the Middle East be a Middle East expert?
Well, it’s an important question that is not asked often enough. Expertise is from the people themselves. The idea that somebody would sit in, I don’t know, Tokyo, and pontificate about British politics to British people is absurd to us – how the hell would they know, especially if they don’t even speak English and have never lived here. But we, in the West, think that is fine when applied to places like the Middle East or Africa. You have plenty of experts sitting in places like Washington or London who will happily offer their opinion about people and places far away, about which they know very little, except this kind of rather refined, separated, abstract academic knowledge, which isn’t real knowledge. Every diplomatic problem I dealt with I found that local people are much better informed than the diplomats, including about how to fix it. Diplomats think they can fly in and identify something, which the local people have not already themselves figured out, which is fantastically arrogant.
Based on what you know, which is more than anyone I can think of, why did the UK invade Iraq?
Ah, well there you have got me – because I actually don’t know. All I know is because it wasn’t the reason they claim it is. The evidence, the intelligence analysis, did not say that Iraq was an immediate and urgent threat, and I think the Prime Minister, because it was all about him in this country, convinced himself that that was a good enough reason. But I don’t think that was part of his motives. In fact, he has never really been clear about his motives because he continues to claim that he was misled by the intelligence. That is a lie. I think he was driven by a more messianic belief that he and the Americans could fix the Middle East. I think there was also a calculation about sticking with the Americans, come hell or high water – especially in this moment of enormous crisis for America after 9/11. That, in a way, is a calculation one understands, but he was never honest about it. He claimed something that was not true and he has never come clean about why he really did it.
So you are saying the US invaded Iraq as a result of 9/11?
Oh absolutely, absolutely. As night follows day, without 9/11 it wouldn’t have happened. After 9/11 the mood in America changed dramatically. The mood in the American government changed dramatically. They had to do something. The first thing they did was invade Afghanistan, which was legitimate, in fact, because al-Qaeda was using Afghanistan as a base. The Taliban was very open about that. So, it was legitimate to get rid of that threat there. But then a group of people inside the US administration took the opportunity to claim that the whole Middle East could be fixed if you started knocking over individual dictatorships, and Iraq was the first one. Saddam was a bad man, there is no question. But the atmosphere that led to the decision to invade was purely about 9/11. It wasn’t about Iraq.
Have you previously promoted the idea of externally-led regime change in Syria? How would you ensure that a post-Assad context does not result in a repetition of Iraq/Libya?
I think it is a fair question. I don’t necessarily advocate for regime change, I have never said that. What I have said is that protection of civilians should be paramount in international policy towards Syria and that may require military protection. That doesn’t mean necessarily that the Syrian government should be overthrown. That said, I would be glad to see the end of the dictatorship in Syria as many other people would. I think that what should replace it is a bottom-up, highly confederal disaggregated form of democracy, where individual groups are given a lot of autonomy, whether they are Kurds or Alawite Arabs. Above all, I don’t think its for outsiders to declare this. When you talk to Syrians of all kinds, what most people want is democracy, peace and, you know, good things for their children. I think above all it is for them to figure that out, and not us to prescribe it. I don’t think that is impossible. This idea that Assad is somehow the creator of all order and needs to be left there otherwise its chaos is ridiculous. It’s chaos now, the question is what we can do to improve that situation.