Archive for April 11th, 2012

April 11, 2012

Keep Your Enemies Close: Syria and the UN General Assembly

Last night, I came across an op-ed piece in the Washington Times, provocatively titled “Time to Suspend Syria from the UN”. My glee at finding a new source of mockery turned to dismay as I noted that the article was written by my friend Ryan Kaminski, especially as I know Ryan is a true believer in the United Nations. I talked to Ryan afterwards, and he stood by the content. And so, with that in mind, I find myself forced to take him to task over his concept:

Specifically, the United States as well as like-minded delegations in the West and Middle East should consider calling for Syria’s suspension from the U.N.’s most democratic and representative organ, the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA), where all 193 U.N. member states can vote. Such an act would entail zero material costs, avoid veto authority and would be a critical step toward alleviating the humanitarian nightmare unfolding in Syria.

In particular, Syria’s suspension would act to further isolate its leadership, increase the probability of high-level Syrian defections both at the U.N. and elsewhere, and would likely bolster the confidence of the country’s beleaguered internal opposition forces. Most importantly, Syria’s suspension would unambiguously symbolize the international community’s collective disgust with the actions of Syria’s ruling government, while providing a new form of leverage to compel Syria’s government to change course.

Before we address the broader issues, there are quite a few technical problems with his proposal. As Kaminski notes later in the article, the Credentials Committee reviews the credentials of the various Member States’ delegations as presented to the Secretary-General. For the 66th Session of the GA, the nine members of this committee are: China, Costa Rica, Egypt, Italy, Maldives, Panama, Russian Federation, Senegal and the United States. As he noted, 7 of them voted in favor of the condemnation of the Syrian Arab Republic for their human rights abuses. But he then assumes that those would likewise vote to suspend the credentials of the Syrian delegation, as though it would not be a protracted battle, with enormous implications, which we will come back to shortly.

He cites the precedent of South Africa as clearing a path for such an action. However, the South African suspension was taken after decades of oppression under apartheid. It could be argued that with the active killing taking place in Syria that this situation trumps that of South Africa, but the swift removal of a state from taking part in any of the discussions under the purview of the General Assembly should be reserved for cases of systemic oppression as taken by apartheid Pretoria.

Kaminski also states that the General Assembly is within its right to suspend Syria from its works, due as well to the South Africa precedent, including a way to get around the veto of the Security Council of any proposal for a formal suspension, as laid out in the UN Charter. He fails to recall that in the South African case, the veto was cast by France, the United Kingdom and United States on such a motion, a fact which will be brought up as evidence of hypocrisy on the part of the West. The President of the General Assembly at the time then offered a ruling that South Africa should be banned from taking part in the Assembly, which was upheld by a vote of 91 votes to 22, with 19 abstentions. The legality of such a move would quickly come under question, and likely lead to increased speculation on the nature of the ruling, as the Presidency of the General Assembly is currently held by a Qatari. It would place the Secretariat in an awkward position if the Syrian delegation challenges such a ruling and attempts to maintain their seat on the GA floor.

Also, there exists a problem of timing. The Credentials Committee reviews the credentials of delegations, according the General Assembly’s Rules of Procedure, no later than a week prior to the convening of a session. The difficulty with Kaminski’s proposal here lies in the fact that the current session has already convened. In the past, General Assembly delegates didn’t reside in New York year round, and so the convening of meetings after the September General Assembly was a rarity, and highlighted the unusual nature of the Security Council’s readiness to meet at a moment’s notice. Now, the 66th Session won’t be gaveled out of until the next session is set to begin, leaving the delegation from Syria seated right where they are.

Now, an Emergency Session could be convened under the Uniting for Peace resolution, which would allow for a new Credentialing Committee to be selected, and the Syrian credentials to be placed under review. However, I have listed previously the difficulties I see in calling such a session, and my analysis stands in my opinion. And let us think for a moment what would happen should an Emergency Meeting of the Credentialing Committee be called forward to consider the Syrian’s credentials post-haste. If you think the UN has an image problem now, imagine the laughter on conservative radio and television. “The UN convenes emergency session to determine whether Syria allowed to speak at meetings” practically reads like a headline of The Onion.

Even if such a session were to be called to order, the rules of the General Assembly only state that the Credentialing Committee is to determine whether to accept the legitimacy of the credentials as presented to the Secretary-General by a Head of State or Foreign Minister of the given country. For the credentials to be rejected, the Committee would have to rule that the international community no longer recognizes the rule of Bashar Al-Assad in a de jure sense. While many states have called for Assad to step down, none have ruled that his regime no longer controls Syria. To do so would require a replacement governing body, a role few believe the Syrian National Council or any of the other competing opposition groups are ready to play.

Playing off the points against the likelihood for utilizing the Uniting for Peace resolution, I also believe Kaminski is rather cavalier with his belief that the forces the United States would be marshalling would then be easily constrained into maintaining the status quo with all other states, preventing a rush of politically-based removal campaigns. The reason the United States drifted away from utilizing the General Assembly as a tool of policy-shaping in the first place is that it came to find the newer states of Africa and Asia too uncontrollable for their tastes, instead taking refuge in the Security Council for matters of peace and security, content with its veto there. While the US may be able to achieve victory here, and was able to beat back calls for Israel’s suspension in the 1980s, I don’t believe that’s a risk that the Obama Administration should take, as the victory may well end up a Pyrrhic one.

Aside from the more technical points, I think that Kaminski also overestimates the effect a suspension from the General Assembly would have. A great deal would come down to how the vote is split. I can’t see Russia and China, two states whose sway in the Security Council have prevent harsher measures from being taken, looking favorably upon such a push in the General Assembly, and may well come out more firmly resolved against pressing for Assad’s departure. Likewise, states that have been fine with condemning the human rights abuses of Syria may be slightly more hesitant to remove a fellow member from the Assembly.

Likewise, will the removal of Bashar Ja’afari from the General Assembly Hall truly convince him to leave the regime? As Colum Lynch pointed out, the diplomatic corps has been far more loyal to Assad than Gaddafi’s during Libya, likely due to lessons learned from that uprising such as having diplomats send their families home to Syria, within the regime’s reach. And a suspension from the General Assembly’s work would mean that a Mission to the UN would still be maintained, and the right to speak still accorded within the Security Council, as well as interaction with the Secretariat. Hardly the clarion call for defectors.

He finally makes the claim that there exists greater flexibility on the issue of seating, as evidenced by Libya’s diplomatic corps’ about face:

Additionally, in February 2011, Libya’s deputy U.N. ambassador in New York, Ibrahim Dabbashi, was somehow able to request an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council – a right reserved for U.N. member state delegations – on the same day he announced that he would represent the Libyan people rather than Moammar Gadhafi. Both cases suggest that under exceptional circumstances, there may be more maneuverability in this area than usually acknowledged.

Unfortunately, the analogy doesn’t quite hold up. While Dabbashi had forsworn the orders sent from Tripoli, he was still sworn in as the recognized Permanent Representative of Libya. Once Dabbashi’s disconnect from Qaddafi was clear, the Libyan government quickly withdrew Dabbashi and appointed a new Permanent Representative. Likewise, soon thereafter, the international community at the time was prepared to recognize a new government, in the form of the National Transitional Council, which was seated as the new Libyan government at the start of the current General Assembly session.

All told, I empathize with Kaminski’s desire to find new tools to leverage against Syria. I myself have called for removing of Syria from international bodies, such as its seat on a human rights committee within UNESCO. However, as you may recall, even that small step failed to gain traction. In the face of continuing Syrian repression against its citizens, a feeling of helplessness is understandable. However, removal of Syria from the General Assembly isn’t the path forward to ending the bloodshed. For now, it’s better to keep your enemies close; leaving Syria sitting in Turtle Bay outweighs the satisfaction that would come with booting them out.

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