In a Crazy Week, Whither the Security Council?

After a relatively staid August, the last week has been absolutely exhausting in the amount of foreign policy news that has broken. Not a single day has gone by without some major turn of event happening, in literally every corner of the globe. Peace has been breached in several instances and death counts reported in several of the crises that have sprung up.

Throughout all of this, what has the United Nations Security Council been doing? The Council is, after all, supposed to be the arbiter of the use of force and the protector of international peace and security. So why, in a week of such turmoil, has the Council’s formal agenda for the week’s meetings been so sparse?

The answer is in part that because of the nature of the conflicts at hand the Security Council has no space in which to be an effective, or necessary, player. In other instances, the Council has been seemingly absent, but only because it has literally done all it can short of authorizing force in many of the situations where it has played a role. I’ll run through several of this week’s flare-ups and clarify just why the U.N. has, or hasn’t, taken the actions that it has.

Somalia

On Monday, Somalia finally managed to lurch out of its transitional phase, with the selection of Hassan Sheikh as President by the newly seated Parliament. The very next day, the al-Shabaab militant group labeled the vote as fraudulent and a “ploy by the West”. Two days into his term in office, President Sheikh was the target of an assassination attempt:

Two of the suicide bombers struck, one near the gate and one at the back of the Jazeera Hotel near the airport as the president was giving a briefing for the news media with the visiting Kenyan foreign minister, Samson K. Ongeri.

Another attacker was shot as he tried to scale the walls of the compound, according to a statement from the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia.

The attack did not interrupt the news conference and the president continued his speech. “This is the Mogadishu we are trying to change,” he said.

Of the many crises that have sprung up in the past few days, none are closer to the Council than Somalia. Indeed, the Security Council has, to put it mildly, been intimately involved with the effort to restore Somalia following its collapse in 1992. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) that Mr. Sheikh’s government is replacing had the strong backing of the United Nations writ large.

The Security Council also approved the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to operate under Chapter VIII of the U.N. Charter.  In doing so, the Council empowered the African Union to utilize the Council’s Chapter VII use of force provisions in its mission to protect civilians and push back against militants, including those that targeted President Sheik on Wednesday. AMISOM is partially funded and equipped by the United Nations as well.

The mandate of AMISOM was just renewed in February of this year and revised to up the total allowed force to include the forces Kenya sent across the border in October 2011. The election of President Sheikh and the attempt on his life, while both major events in Somalia’s recovery or lack thereof, do little to affect the mission of AMISOM in any way that would require swift Council action. Instead, AMISOM seems to be continuing to protect Mogadishu and its attempts to finally take the port town of Kismayo.

Surprisingly, however, the Security Council has yet to put out a statement, either of the Press or Presidential variety, congratulating Mr. Sheikh nor condemning the attempt on his life. The silence on the matter could be one of tactical silence, due to the overwhelming role that the Council had in supporting the TFG and a desire to not unduly influence the new government. What’s unfortunately more likely, however, is that the passage of such a Statement was deemed a lower priority by the Members of the Council’s missions in the lead-up to the General Assembly. In either case, some word from the Security Council would do away with any notion that Somalia is slipping back into the recesses of the international community’s mind.

Libya/Egypt/Yemen/Sudan

The largest news in the United States this week on the foreign policy front has been the attacks on U.S. Embassies and Consulates in various countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa. These attacks have ranged in size, scale and motive, but have taken the lives of four Americans, including the Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens. And as of Friday morning, the German and British Embassies have been targeted as well.

The fact of the matter is that these attacks, while particularly heinous, are not the sort of issues that the Security Council deals with directly. Indeed, the question of embassy protection is mostly bilateral in nature and of greater importance to the states in question than the overall maintenance of peace and security. While the attacks, even those in Egypt where no lives were lost, are clear breaches of the Vienna Convention of 1961 and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963, the Council is in no position to act as an enforcer of those provisions. Indeed, any attempt to do more than issue the condemnatory statements against the attacks that it has would be imprudent, save at the unlikely request of one of the countries whose embassies have been sacked.

Anything more the Council can do, it already has. As an example, the U.N. Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) was developed in the aftermath of the fall of the Qaddafi regime to provide assistance to the new government in establishing its control of its territory. The Security Council received a briefing by Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffery Feltman on Wednesday, as he was previously scheduled to introduce the most recent UNSMIL report to the members:

“This horrific and tragic attack, together with a spate of assassinations of security personnel in Benghazi, a series of explosive devices in Tripoli, and attacks on Sufi shrines, further emphasizes the security challenge facing the authorities in Libya,” [said Feltman].

In the report itself, the mission highlighted a lack of central control by Tripoli over the many militias still active within Libya and difficulties in bringing the police force up to speed. Also, with the revocation of Resolution 1973’s authorization for countries to use force in Libya for “civilian protection”, any new authorization will have to get through a new vote on the Council, the likelihood of which is somewhere between slim and nil.

Likewise, in Yemen, the Security Council passed Resolutions 2014 and 2051 in 2011 and 2012 respectively to push a political transition in Yemen that would facilitate a changeover from former President Saleh’s regime. Outside of the Council, the Secretary-General appointed as his Special Representative for Yemen Jamal Benomar. SRSG Benomar was due to have been in Sana’a on Wednesday; it’s unknown if he was still in the capital during the protests at the U.S. Embassy, but it will be interesting to hear his next briefing. In any case, there is no useful role the Council could have taken in this incident.

As for Egypt and Sudan, in the former the United Nations has thus far, wisely, kept a hands-off role with the situation that has been developing internally there. The Embassy breach there is a matter for the United States and Egypt solely to work out, a process that is already under way after fits and starts. In the latter, the U.N. Security Council has enough to worry about in its handling of Khartoum to put forward anything more than a strong condemnation, considering it still requires Sudan’s by your leave to operate two peacekeeping missions in the area, one in Darfur, the other in the disputed territory of Abyei.

East/South China Sea 

Last night, going by U.S. time, China dispatched a small fleet of patrol boats near the set of islands in the middle of a dispute between themselves and several other states to provide “law enforcement”. The islands, known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan, are little more than clusters of uninhabitable rock in some places, but may hold valuable natural resources off their coast lines. More importantly, the ownership of the islands also helps determine the coastal waters of each country.

Sending out their patrol boats was meant to be a message of warning to Japan over its Tuesday announcement that it will purchase several of the islands from who Japan recognizes as their private owner. The Global Times issued an editorial stressing the need for Chinese unity to prevail throughout its development, noting that “China has no choice but to respond to Japan’s outrageous provocation. This is a vital step for China to consolidate its claims of sovereignty in the East and South China Seas.”

Maritime issues over tiny islands extend beyond Japan and China, with further claims laid by Viet Nam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines to ownership of various portions of island chains throughout the East and South China Seas. Separately from the Chinese and Japanese clash, the Philippines declared this week at the waters near the islands they lay claim to were not within the South China Sea, but rather the “West Philippine Sea”. China was less than impressed. No matter the name of the sea the islands are located in, China’s moving ships into the area to enforce Chinese law raises the ante on the need for a settlement.

As I have noted previously, Asia is, and will continue to be, something of blind spot for the Security Council. These maritime disputes fall squarely within China’s sphere of influence, an area that China has been loathe to bring to international bodies for arbitration. Already, China has been extremely uncomfortable in allowing the South China Sea dispute to be discussed at the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). The United States has been making a concerted push for negotiations on the final status of the islands to be made with ASEAN acting in unison, a move that China views warily at best, an attempt to unite the community against it at worst. Instead, China laboriously insists on concluding settlement over each of the claims bilaterally, where it will have more influence over the final outcome.

The fact is that China would prefer to keep it’s maritime boundaries negotiations as far away from the Security Council as possible. For the Security Council to discuss them would be an admission that actions were being taken that were a potential breach in international peace and security, a charge which could be levied at China itself. Even were the issue to come under debate, which is still possible as there is no way for the PRC to unilaterally block procedural motions such as placing items on the agenda, any resolution that China would find unfavorable to its interests would simply be vetoed.

______

In summation, despite the hectic view of recent events from the United States, the U.N. Security Council has not been overly negligent in carrying out assigned duties. Instead, in areas where it has space to act, it has done so, or continued to proceed with decisions that had been previously made on the various hot spots. In some areas, however, it is constrained by its very make-up, an issue that could become a much larger problem as Asia becomes more of a breeding ground for state-to-state conflict.

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2 Comments to “In a Crazy Week, Whither the Security Council?”

  1. Fantastic article and thoughtful analysis. Just one factual comment: The islands that China, Japan, and Taiwan are contending over are in the East China Sea. The islands that involve China, the Philippines, Viet Nam, Brunei, and Malaysia are the Spratlys and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

    Still, your reasoning is 100% correct. Whether its the ECS or SCS, it will not be discussed.

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