State Department asked U prof for advice on Syria

Kathryn Sikkink created a possible solution for the Syrian conflict.
October 07, 2013

A University of Minnesota professor’s proposal to solve the Syrian conflict is being discussed at the national level.

The U.S. Department of State asked political science professor Kathryn Sikkink to submit her ideas to solve problems in Syria — a rare occurrence for University professors.

Sikkink, who’s been at the University for more than a decade, was one of about 10 academics selected to draft solutions for the Syrian crisis, an effort led by the Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

Her proposal, which she plans to submit Monday, focuses on creating accountability for war crimes, such as the use of chemical weapons in Syria and the treatment of political prisoners.

Academics submitting proposals to the State Department come from all over the country. Sikkink said she hasn’t worked with the federal government in this capacity before.

Farrah Tek, political science graduate student and Sikkink’s research assistant, said she was excited that Sikkink submitted her recommendation to the U.S. Department of State.

“I see it as … the future blend between academia and public policy,” she said. “It’s very exciting that the work that people in this field do can reach the public on another level.”

The United Nations Security Council voted at the end of September to remove or destroy all of the chemical weapons in Syria by the middle of next year — a response to an alleged chemical attack by Syrian forces that killed hundreds of civilians.

On Sunday, UN inspectors started eliminating the country’s supply of chemical weapons, according to the Associated Press.

Sikkink said her solution is based on her research at the University that focuses on how developing countries handle accountability and justice.

“We have seen that countries that use human rights prosecutions are associated with improvements in human rights … and that this holds even in times of civil war,” she said.

Sikkink said it’s important to get the process of creating a justice system for war crimes in place so that “people on the ground are aware that they may be held accountable” and peace negotiations can be made easier.

Critics of her claims say peace agreements should come first, before any war crime trials, so that those participating in the international talks feel comfortable, Sikkink said.

“Sometimes it’s hard to strike a peace agreement when people feel that the human rights violations aren’t going to end,” she said.

More than 4 million Syrians have been displaced since political violence began in 2011, according to a report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Associate professor Andrew Furco, who is also the associate vice president of the University’s Office for Public Engagement, said it’s rare for University professors to make this kind of advisement on international policies.

Bridget Marchesi, who is a political science graduate student and graduate director of Sikkink’s proposal, said the State Department’s choice made sense.

“Kathryn has been working in the human rights field and in transitional justice for a long time, and so she’s one of the world’s leading experts,” Marchesi said.

Sikkink said she remembers former University professor, Colin Kahl, who is now an associate professor at Georgetown University, being asked by the federal government to give input on the Iraq War, but she couldn’t think of any other examples.

Next semester, Sikkink said she plans to transfer to Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government — where this kind of interaction with the federal government is more common — and continue her national public policy research.

But while she’s still at the University, undergraduate and graduate students are able to analyze her proposal and take part in the feedback process, Marchesi said.

“The Syria memo was definitely something different because the audience was very specific,” she said. “It was a specific request from the State Department.”

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