Archive for ‘United Nations’

May 30, 2012

Two Truths and a Lie: Mugabe and the UNWTO Edition.

The blogosphere has been aflame for the last day or so, as news broke that the United Nations had become a self-parody. The culprit: the UN’s World Tourism Organization (UNWTO, not to be confused with the WTO), who had confirmed many clichés by appointing President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe as a “Tourism Ambassador”. While I tend to instinctively push back on critiques of the UN, I’ve been known to have to just shake my head at some of the choices the body and its subsidiaries make, and this one seems pretty outrageous.

Or is it? There’s a bit more nuance to the story than you can easily get across in 140 characters, and so I present to you an adaptation of the game “Two Truths and a Lie”. Like game itself, there are portions of this story that are accurate and one that is not. I’d like to clarify between them.

Truth: The UNWTO has named Zimbabwe as a Co-Host of its next General Assembly

At the end of the last meeting of the UNWTO in October of last year, the Member States bid to see who would win the distinction of hosting the next General Assembly meeting in 2013. In the end, the bid was won by both Zimbabwe and Zambia in a co-hosting role. How did this happen? As it turns out, the UNWTO’s decisions are implemented by the Executive Council, which is made up of 20% of the body, and seats apportioned by geography. Zimbabwe has utilized this distribution to gain a seat on the Executive Council, and further leveraged that seat to gain its Co-Host status. Zimbabwe is determined to use the opportunity to revitalize its image abroad.

The truth of the matter is that Zimbabwe should be playing no such host role, even if it is shared, and even if it is with so minor a body as the UNWTO. The repression and economic mismanagement of the Mugabe government is ongoing, and shows no sign of stopping. Promised reforms have yet to materialize almost a decade after a “power sharing” agreement kept Mugabe in his chair, and will not halt after the UNWTO Assembly has completed. This isn’t even comparable to the outrage expressed around North Korea’s Presidency of the UN Conference on Disarmament, as at least that was due to alphabetic rotation. The Member States have willing chosen Zimbabwe to serve as a co-host, a folly at best.

Truth: The United States never joined the UNWTO, nor should it ever

The United States never opted to join up with the UNWTO after its founding in 1970, nor its predecessor the International Union of Official Travel ‎Organisations. This choice was probably for the best. Don’t get me wrong, the goals of the UNWTO are admirable, in particular their desire to promote sustainability and use tourism as a means to reduce poverty under the Millennium Development Goals. The agency likewise has over 400 “Affiliate Members”, mostly private sector representatives, who take part in the General Assemblies and bring together the public and private spheres.

However, that is about as far as my praise goes. While I promote the necessity of the United Nations as a whole, I do not believe that every agency and body within the UN system is of an equal standing or equal importance. The World Tourism Organization is one of the few bodies that I honestly believe would serve absolutely zero United States interests if we were to join up. Membership in a multilateral organization would do little to further enhance the US’ current standing as the second most visited country in the world. Nor would taking part in UNWTO meetings on ethical tourism likely have much of an impact on US policy.

Lie: Robert Mugabe was named a UN Tourism Ambassador

The main outrage that is being expressed is not at the host status of Zimbabwe, but the belief that the UN has named him a “Tourism Ambassador”. Here’s where the story breaks down. As noted by the UNWTO itself over its Twitter account, there is no such position that is being offered or has been offered at any point. So where did the notion come from?

The earliest use of the term I can find tracks back to this blog post that went up nearly a week ago from the Heritage Foundation. While they make several accurate points, the link that Mr. Brett Schaefer provides to cite his usage of the term “Tourism Ambassador” gives no evidence to back him up. The title was destined to sit idly until it exploded yesterday; gaining new life once the Guardian picked up on the meme, albeit in a slightly more muted form, which was then listed on the Drudge Report.

In reality, the UNWTO sent out an open letter to the Heads of State and Government of its Member States, asking them to sign onto the relevance of travel and tourism to today’s economic challenges. As Joshua Keating notes, those that have responded includes: “Mexico, South Africa, China, Ireland, Indonesia, Malaysia, Republic of Korea, Colombia, Kenya, Kazakhstan, Hungary, Burkina Faso, Armenia, Romania, Mozambique, Azerbaijan, Brunei, Thailand, Georgia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Philippines, Seychelles, Serbia, Greece, Tunisia, and Gambia”. This is hardly the singling out of Mugabe that assigning an honorary “Ambassadorship” would entail.

In summation, the meme that a “Tourism Ambassadorship” was given to Mugabe is patently false. I myself took part in spreading it on Twitter yesterday, before becoming aware of the actual situation. In truth, there are definitely reasons to be upset about the role that’s been granted Zimbabwe at the UNWTO. There’s no need to make up fake ones.

May 25, 2012

There’s a Fine, Fine Line

The Annan Plan just can’t seem to catch a break. In the several weeks since the launch of the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), the lack of a corresponding cessation of violence has caused many to question the viability of the mission, and in turn the role that Mr. Annan is playing in seeking a peaceful outcome. The first report of the Secretary-General to the Security Council on UNSMIS’ progress was due to the Council on Thursday; its release has been delayed, though the reason behind the delay has yet to be revealed. When it is released*, however, it is doubtful that much good news will be put forward, leading to the question “When do you call it quits?”

Highlighting the dire straits that Syria still finds itself in, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry for Syria released an update to its last report yesterday. The picture it paints is one where grave human rights violations are ongoing, with the state’s atrocities still the overwhelming majority of those committed, but the opposition is gaining as their resistance turns ever more violent. Bombings remain targeted solely at government and military targets, but whether that will continue is yet to be seen. Aaron Zelin describes the jihadi nature of many of these bombings, noting that are outside the control the Free Syrian Army.

It is in this context that UNSMIS is attempting to operate under its Security Council mandate, and Mr. Annan seeks to unite a divided opposition before talks can even begin with the government. The issues that UNSMIS are facing, and the uniqueness of its mission, are expertly laid out by Arthur Boutellis of IPI’s Global Observatory:

• The conflict opposes the Syrian state to a multifaceted “Syrian opposition,” with no clear ceasefire line to observe, and combats taking place in urban areas;

• The fact that UN observers are being used to make the ceasefire stick rather than to observe a ceasefire that had already taken hold;

• Some of the acts of violence–such as bomb explosions–are not easily attributable to one side or the other without specialized investigative capacities;

• The presence of a “third element” –other than government forces and opposition–possibly Al Qaeda-affiliated spoilers, complicates the dynamics of the conflict and represents a direct threat to the UN observers;

• The limited consent to the UN presence by the Syrian host government—also a party to the conflict—is a serious limitation to its access and hence to its effectiveness (it is still opposing UN helicopters, for example).

These issues are all true and especially daunting for a mission that is being undertaken without a Chapter VII mandate to back it. That adds one further complication to the task that UNSMIS has been given: public perception. Observer Missions fall outside of the norm of peacekeeping that has been seen most frequently since 1991, particularly high-profile missions such as MONUSCO and UNOCI, or failed missions such as those in the Balkans and Rwanda. Those missions all have or had some form of a method for ensuring compliance with the demands of the Security Council or the terms of the peace deal that has been put into place, or at least some built-in self-defense mechanism. Their role is easily recognized as being one of action, rather than the more passive role observing requires.

As such, the deployment of a United Nations mission whose sole purpose is to act as a non-biased viewer of events, rather than an actor, immediately disappoints those who would like to see a stronger role taken in pushing for peace. Even those actions mandated of UNSMIS, like mediating between opposition group members, are not easily viewed and understood by the general public, particularly audiences in the West and greater Middle East alike who remain confused as to why more isn’t being done to end the violence in Syria. Merely reporting on the atrocities falls far short of the envisioned goal of ending them all together than activists are willing to find acceptable, leaving UNSMIS at a disadvantage on all sides.

All this pressure adds up, as the United States and Russia, neither of which were fans of the Annan Plan from the beginning, have already begun staking out positions to blame anyone but them should the plan collapse. Russia is looking to cast the opposition as participating with terrorists, while the United States may just declare that its skepticism has been in the right all along. Even Richard Gowan, by no means a naysayer when it comes to the UN, is exploring ways that Annan could save face from a failure of his eponymous plan, up to and including a strategic pause in his efforts.

The problem that many have had with calls for UNSMIS to withdraw, or for the Annan Plan to be put on ice, is that there is currently no viable alternative that doesn’t involve an escalation in violence in some shape or form. However, the chance that this may be the case whether there’s a plan to counter it or not seems to be growing by the day. Already, the tensions of Syria, and the demand for weapons the conflict is producing, are spilling over into Lebanon, destabilizing the security of a state whose fate has long been tied to Syria’s. And while the presence of observers brings down the level of violence of cities they are visiting, there is no way for enough blue berets to be deployed to achieve this effect across the country, not when IEDs still explode near UNSMIS convoys.

There is no easy way to determine that a bid for peace has died, as it goes against the very idea of international diplomacy and mediation as a preventative mechanism. However, this may go down in history as having been a political intervention at a stage in which the ability of reconciliation between the parties had long since passed, making preventative goals impossible to achieve. Delays in an agreement between the Great Powers on how to handle Syria allowed non-violent protestors to determine that raising arms was the only way to affect change, thus shifting the goal posts before Annan had even been brought in.

The line between chance of success and failure is a fine one in this case. It may turn out to have already been crossed in this case, leaving UNSMIS going through the motions until its mandate ends in late July, or the Council overturns Annan’s mandate. The Security Council for now seems content to give Annan the leeway to pull the plug on his own plan, and should continue to do so as long as a glimmer of hope remains. Save a miraculous breakthrough, however, the chance that UNSMIS be judged to have not crossed that line at the end of 90 days is thinner than the line itself.

*EDIT: Since publication of this blog post, the report has been leaked in its entirety. It’s about as was expected.

May 23, 2012

Crying UNCLOS

Hearings finally opened today in Senator John Kerry’s push to get the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before year’s end. The onslaught by Kerry comes as significant pushback is still being registered by his Republican counterparts, and calls that the trea-

I have to pause at this point to note that this is my no less than fifth attempt to write substantively about UNCLOS and its importance to the United States to ratify. I will further note that I don’t believe that I’ll be able to finish this post as intended. For me to actually be able to write about UNCLOS and the specific effects non-ratification would have on the United States, I would have to read the thing. And that is something that I just cannot do. Not for you, not for my love of the UN, not without serious bodily harm as a consequence for my not studying the text.

What is preventing me from reading the treaty? The Convention on the Law of the Sea is composed of seventeen parts. Which are in turn composed of three hundred and twenty articles. Nine annexes are also included within the Convention. Within that tome of international legalese, it finds rooms to preemptively settle scores of disputes that would likely arise between the various sea-going nations, ranging from matters of determining the Exclusive Economic Zone of each state to freedom of movement for armed vessels. Over 160 nations have so far signed on to and ratified the Convention, leaving the United States on the outside looking in, and me unable to look at the words “Law of the Sea” without my eyes glazing over.

Luckily for me, it’s not my job to read this overlong treaty. And it isn’t even the job of the Senators who will be hopefully voting on the treaty in the near future. Instead, that task likely falls to their various Legislative Directors and Assistants. I do not envy them at this juncture. But judging from the resistance that is being registered by certain Republicans, those staffers haven’t read the documents all that well themselves. As Mark Goldberg puts it in his back of the envelope whip count, this should be low-hanging fruit, but instead stands a solid chance of not reaching the 2/3rds majority required for ratifications.

So I give up. Rather than try to explain the scope and breadth of why the US should join UNCLOS myself, and I’ll let Secretary of State Hillary Clinton go to town on why opponents are mistaken in their resistance to the treaty:

Are there any serious drawbacks to joining this Convention? Opponents of the treaty believe there are, but they are mistaken. Some critics assert that joining the Convention would impinge upon U.S. sovereignty. On the contrary, joining the Convention will increase and strengthen our sovereignty. The Convention secures the United States an expansive exclusive economic zone and extended continental shelf, with vast resources in each. U.S. accession would lock-in our rights to all of this maritime space.

Some say that the Convention’s dispute resolution provisions are not in the U.S. interest. On the contrary, these procedures – which the United States sought – help protect rather than harm U.S. interests. As in many other treaties, including free trade agreements, such procedures provide the United States with an important tool to help ensure that other countries live up to their obligations. And U.S. military activities will never be subject to any form of dispute resolution.

Other critics have suggested that the Convention gives the United Nations the authority to levy some kind of global tax. This is also untrue. There are no taxes on any individuals, corporations, or anyone else under the Convention.

And Secretary of Defense Leon Panneta on the national security benefits of acceding to UNCLOS:

By not acceding to the Convention, we give up the strongest legal footing for our [navy's] actions. We undercut our credibility in a number of Asia-focused multilateral venues – just as we’re pushing for a rules-based order in the region and the peaceful resolution of maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea and elsewhere. How can we argue that other nations must abide by international rules when we haven’t joined the treaty that codifies those rules?

At the other end of this arc sits the Strait of Hormuz, a vital sea lane of communication to us and our partners. We are determined to preserve freedom of transit there despite Iranian threats to impose a blockade. U.S. accession to the Convention would help strengthen worldwide transit passage rights under international law and help to further isolate Iran as one of the few remaining non-parties to the Convention.

 These are the key reasons for accession, which is critical to our sovereignty and our national security. That is why I fail to understand the arguments opposed to the treaty.

And Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey on the military’s ongoing desire to join UNCLOS:

The United States is a maritime nation—militarily and economically. We have the world’s largest Exclusive Economic Zone and the world’s largest and most capable navy. We stand to benefit from the additional legal certainty and public order this treaty would provide. Moreover, this certainty will become increasingly important as the global security environment becomes more competitive and more complex.

From the beginning, U.S. negotiators have been involved in the development of the Convention and have ensured it would both serve and protect our interests. Not joining the Convention limits our ability to shape its implementation and interpretation. We will need that influence if we intend to continue to lead in global maritime affairs.

Now is the time for the United States to join the Convention. We should not wait. The global security environment is changing. The Pacific and the Arctic are becoming increasingly important. And some nations appear increasingly willing to assert themselves and to push the boundaries of custom and tradition in a negative direction.

And Robert Stevens, CEO of Lockheed Martin on the economic importance that the US ratifies the Convention:

Ratification is now critical to the important U.S. economic and national security interests advanced by access to the vast mineral and rare earth metals resources on the ocean floor. These mineral resources are vital to a wide array of defense and high-tech manufacturing products and systems – computers, mobile phones, lasers, aircraft engines, specialty glass, and missile guidance systems are just a few of the many products that contain rare earth metals. Considerable financial investment is required to access these mineral reserves and ensure that the U.S. has a reliable long-term source of supply that cannot be interrupted, monopolized, or otherwise controlled by foreign governments. That investment is only going to be secured for rights clearly recognized and protected within the established treaty-based framework.

This isn’t a case of liberal internationalism run amuck, or idealism in the face of harsh realities. Rather, the need for the United States to become a Party to the Convention on the Law of the Sea has been voiced by the White House continuously since the Reagan Administration, with support from the Armed Forces and the private sector. The only thing standing in the way for over thirty years has been the willful stubbornness of the United States Senate. A hard-fought battle to get many of the United States demands met in the 1994 Agreement didn’t manage to dislodge the Convention then, so maybe Senator John McCain’s promised amendments will bring the votes of those Senators with reservations. In any case, I’ll gladly support the Chairman Kerry in his push to finally get this treaty out of the Senate. Just don’t ask me to read the thing.

May 15, 2012

Does Size Really Matter?: The S5 and Security Council Reform

The United Nations has been a dual-track system since its birth. Out of the ashes of the Second World War, those subjugated demanded a world where true equality of nations was held paramount. Meanwhile, the victors who shouldered most of the burden during the past six years required a post-war system where their security needs were held paramount. The Charter of the United Nations reflects that uneasy balance, one that has been challenged since before the ink was dry on the recommendations of the Dumbarton Conference in 1944.

This discord, the push and pull between the General Assembly’s notion of equality and the special prerogatives granted to the UN Security Council, has cropped up many times over the last six decades. The most recent confrontation has the mighty Permanent Five taking on…the Small Five. The Small Five, or S5, is composed of Jordan, Costa Rica, Lichtenstein, Singapore, and Switzerland and have come out swinging against the lack of transparency among the members of the Security Council. Their efforts have been chronicled by Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch (after a fruitless attempt to pull together more information myself several weeks ago).

Despite the attempts of the P5 to keep the S5 from pressing forward with their draft resolution to further open up the processes of the Council, a vote of the full General Assembly is scheduled to take place tomorrow. According to the Swiss Mission, the draft is likely to receive a ringing endorsement from the Assembly. Considering the majority of the proposals contained in the draft, this isn’t a huge surprise. In all, the draft can be seen less in the context of the large states versus the small, as framed by Lynch, but as the continuation of an ongoing battle for political standing within the United Nations structure between the Council and the General Assembly, and in turn the Global North and Global South.

When the United Nations first came into session, it was assumed that the General Assembly would remain on equal footing with the Security Council, given the broad swath of issues under its purview via the Charter. As the membership of the Assembly and the UN as a whole expanded during the years of decolonization, however, the importance of the Assembly began to paradoxically shrink. The weight granted to it by the United States in the face of Soviet obstinacy in the Security Council during the 1950s had become too much of a liability with the large influx of post-colonial states. The General Assembly took on a position more and more in line with the principles of the Global South, from whence the vast majority of its members hailed. This was the face of the United Nations presented for the majority of its existence, as the US and USSR deadlocked the Council on the majority of major security issues.

After the thaw of the Cold War in the early 1990s, a resurgent Council leapt back into the fray, wielding its considerable authority under Chapters V, VI, and VII of the Charter with greater force, and use of force, than at any point in history. This return to form knocked the General Assembly from its pedestal, and onto the back-burner of the more pressing issues of international peace and security. Since then, a renewed clamor has sprung up surrounding the need for widespread reform of the Council, which had waxed and waned since the last major expansion of the Council in 19 63.

As noted in Lynch’s article, however, there is dissent among those states outside of the P-5 on how to best achieve that reform as “another bloc of countries, known as the Uniting for Consensus group, which includes countries like Italy, Pakistan, and Argentina, also oppose a vote — saying that it would distract from efforts to negotiate an enlargement of the Security Council”. What makes their dissent unsurprising in the context of a struggle between the GA and UNSC, is that the Uniting for Consensus group was first established in opposition to the Group of Four (Germany, Brazil, India, and Japan). Each member of the G4 has a counterpart in the Uniting for Consensus group seeking to prevent them from attaining a new form of regional hegemony. In short, the dissent among GA members is comparable to lower-income Americans being against raising taxes on the wealthy, in the hopes that they’ll one day join the ranks of the latter. Reformation of the Council to add in new seats requires amending the Charter, an act that is veto-able in the Security Council; it only makes sense for those who want to become permanent members themselves to have an interest in not offending the P5.

And so the S5 is pressing forward with their recommendations, the majority of which shift the balance of the Council’s functions to allow more participation by the states without seats. In particular, the issue of keeping peace is brought up several times throughout the annex, first in the context of providing a greater say for the chairs of the country-specific Peacebuilding Commissions during informal consultations of the Council. The inclusion of the Peacebuilding Commission chairs would indeed foster a more cohesive practice when it comes to developing missions and deployments to the countries in question. Such consultations would be particularly welcome in states like Guinea-Bissau that relapse into conflict. However, the informal consultations of the Council were first developed precisely so that no outsiders would be privy to the discussions; formal meetings of the Council are open to the public, and thus the informal consultation was developed to hash out positions and engage in the sausage-making of diplomacy outside of the limelight. In the current set-up any leak can be attributed to one of fifteen missions; accepting more players to the game increases the likelihood of spillage of private words in the eyes of Council members.

Likewise, the draft calls for more participation in informal meetings by those states who have contributed police officers or troops to peacekeeping missions. Such a proposal would be in line with the spirit of the Charter, if not the letter. Chapter VII, Article 43 called upon Member States to make available a negotiated number of armed forces to the UN Security Council at all times. Article 44 then gave those Member States a seat at the table in discussing just how those forces would be used. Without the implementation of Article 43, Article 44 became a moot point, which carried over into the usage of volunteered forces in modern-day peacekeeping and peace-enforcing missions. However, the stigma against outsiders still pervades.

The S5 should be well aware of the difficulties that enacting such changes in the working practices of the Security Council would bring, for two reasons. First, they have had some successes in the past in having the Council become more open in its deliberations. Second, as seen in the Chart below, three of the members of the S5 have served on the Security Council, two of them within the last decade.

Country Years Served
Costa Rica 1974-1975 1997-1998 2008-2009
Jordan 1965-1966 1982-1983 X
Lichtenstein X X X
Singapore 2001-2002 X X
Switzerland X X X

They must thus be well aware of the jealousy with which the Security Council guards its ability to set its own rules. The Council is so devoted to ensuring that its rules never change, that they have been operating under their Provisional Rules since 1945; the set has never come to a vote for fear that they would be forced to change. And as United Kingdom Ambassador Sir Mark Lyall Grant stated, the ability of the Council to set their own rules is enshrined in Article V of the Charter.

The above provisions are likely to be begrudgingly supported, though, should they pass overwhelmingly. Less likely to be acceded to are those in the final paragraphs, as they would shift the most autonomy away from the Council while granting the most oversight to the General Assembly:

19. Explaining the reasons for resorting to a veto or declaring its intention to do so, in particular with regard to its consistency with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and applicable international law. A copy of the explanation should be circulated as a separate Security Council document to all Members of the Organization.

20. Refraining from using a veto to block Council action aimed at preventing or ending genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

21. Establishing a practice, in appropriate cases, of declaring, when casting a negative vote on a draft resolution before the Council, that such a negative vote shall not constitute a veto in the sense of Article 27, paragraph 3, of the Charter.

The sole reason the United Soviet Social Republic was persuaded to join the United Nations was the assurance of its veto power in the Council. As I’ve stated before, while ugly, its uses are in fact in line with international law, as the Charter stands above near all international law. Dealing with the actual proposals themselves, the last point is easily explained away as a rephrasing of the principle of the abstention. While technically not a vote in favor as described under Chapter V of the Charter, abstentions have long since come to be accepted as an appropriate way for a Permanent Member to express dissent with the current text of a resolution without exercising the veto.

The other two are much trickier to handle in a way that would both do credit to the spirit of the request and protect the privileges of the Permanent Five. An option that could be taken, should this resolution pass, is in the first instance to give the Assembly too much of a good thing. I’m certain that, for example, should the United States feel the need to veto yet another resolution on Israel, that it could produce a tome of a document for the General Assembly, which nobody will read. Or, barring that, deliver a single paragraph of reasons behind the vote. The suggestion is vague at best, and unlikely to constrain the threat of veto by Permanent Members, let alone the actual usage.

The case remains strongest for the second of the three suggestions, which recommends that the veto not be used in the instance of a draft tabled dealing with genocide or mass atrocities. While normally the United States and the other Western members of the P5 would be in favor of such a suggestion, the inclusion of it with other recommendations dilutes its purpose and causes them to stand in lockstep with Russia and China over protecting their right under the Charter. While the attempt to produce political pressure on the Council is indeed admirable, it is unfortunate that this paragraph will ultimately be ignored by the Council.

The General Assembly and the Security Council are two sides of the same coin in international affairs. On the one side, you have the ideal state of being, where all states are equal in their sovereignty and their role in international affairs. On the latter, you have a much more realist view, with strong states doing as they will, and weak states doing as they must. The struggle for the United Nations between these two competing ideas is unlikely to be solved by this draft resolution. The S5, acting as the proxy of the General Assembly, aren’t the Lilliputians that they’re pegged to be. But in this instance it’s the Security Council that will most certainly refuse to be tied down.

May 9, 2012

A Revolution without Dancing

Yesterday afternoon, Joint Special Envoy for Syria Kofi Annan briefed the Security Council on the progress that the government of Bashar al-Assad has made in implementing his eponymous Six Point Plan. The verdict: not much. Contrary to prior briefings, in his update to the Council, Annan sounded a much more pessimistic tone:

The Syrian army has not retreated from population centers, as called for in the accord, and continues to fire heavy artillery against civilians, Annan said. In addition, Syrian authorities continue mass arrests, and the extent of violence remains “unacceptable,” he said, according to [diplomats].

This admission comes after weeks of commentators predicting the swift collapse of the Annan Plan as a way forward in Syria. Speaking to the UN Press Corps after his briefing, and seeming to direct his response to these critics, Annan indicated that were there another viable plan to end the violence, he would gladly support it. At this time, according to Annan, no such plan exists. The Security Council is also on hold from pressing for such a plan until the Secretary-General presents his first 15-day report on the implementation of Resolution 2043 early next week.

The critiques of the Annan plan are many, and for the most part accurate, including that the number on the ground is but a few. However, one point that many seem to overlook is that the Annan Plan is an attempt to staunch the blood flow in Syria, without healing the wound. The latter is the political process that the Annan Plan hoped to foster. As a way to slow the violence, without completely halting it, the deployment of the UN Supervisory Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) has been effective.

UNSMIS also has played its role of cataloguing abuses for report to the Secretary-General well, especially in the face of the many obstacles it must overcome, including bombs exploding near the head of the Mission. To Major-General Mood’s credit, in response to the explosion, he stated that it is “what the Syrian people experience everyday”. But the non-state participants in the international community are becoming increasingly less patient with the pace of the UN’s measures and indicators of progress.

In a Foreign Policy article published yesterday, Salman Shaikh issued an at times scathing condemnation of the Plan, noting that it is “flawed because it was formulated on the misguided belief that the Assad regime will ever stop using violence against domestic protesters and negotiate with them in good faith”. Shaik makes several strong points throughout his article, and unlike many, he provides the basis of an alternative that moves beyond the calls for the use of force that most provide. However, there are still flaws in his argument. The start of his call to action begins with a plea to have the world aid the opposition in uniting:

With the stakes so high, the international community cannot afford to pin its hopes on the Annan plan. Instead, it should accept the hard lessons of the past 14 months and redirect its efforts toward changing the balance of power on the ground.

Those countries with a stake in Syria’s future should do their utmost to help Syrians organize a broad-based national movement that unites people on the basis of opposition to the regime and commitment to a democratic Syria. This will require undoing the Assads’ 42-year old “divide and rule” strategy, bringing together key groups of Syrian society such as minorities and tribes. These groups now have a crucial role to play to hasten the regime’s demise and place Syria on a path to a democratic future.

I fully agree that this is a needed piece to solving Syria. The issue appears to be figuring out how to do so, not in having the will to get it done. As noted in his next paragraph, Syrians still living within the borders of the country don’t necessarily have confidence in the Syrian National Council. Unfortunately, in keeping with the lack of will to have their actions dictated by outsiders that causes that lack of confidence, there are few ways to provide the sort of safe-zones for these alliance building negotiations within Syria. Patrolling a few cities at a time is currently taxing UNSMIS; providing a safe haven for political committees to organize without fear of retaliation would require many, many more observers of a non-military makeup. Barring this ability to directly facilitate, I am uncertain how Shaikh intends the countries mentioned to aid the process.

Further, Shaik still manages to call for an increased effort to provide weaponry to the Free Syrian Army:

[Tribes in Syria] express greater support for the fragmented FSA [than the Syrian National Council], even if it has struggled to establish a clear command-and-control structure inside Syria from its Turkish base. Tribal figures have stated that they want the international community to support the FSA by providing expert assistance and help with communications and specific armaments. They worry that the uncoordinated, steady trickle of arms through private sources and the determined efforts of jihadists to enter Syria through Iraq will lead only to further chaos. They also point out that many FSA leaders and ordinary soldiers are “sons of the tribes,” and that more would join its ranks if the FSA had greater external support. Notably, there is also increasing talk of a military alliance between the FSA — in collaboration with the SNC — and the tribes and Kurds.

While calls for a controlled and managed provision of arms to the Free Syrian Army seem logical, the logistical components involved make such a venture riskier than Shaik notes. Further, the introduction of new arms into the region has already begun to affect Lebanon, whose fate has long been tied to Syria. The UN Special Envoy to the Middle East has told reporters that arms are now flowing both ways, from Syria to Lebanon and back across the border. Another UN official referred to this transfer as “a dance of death at the brink of the abyss of war”. I highly doubt that in giving arms to the FSA, we can then check their redistribution to others throughout the region.

His paragraph also highlights the reasoning behind many governments’ squeamishness in increasing engagement with the FSA. The lack of a clear command-and-control structure, let alone any sort of cohesion in its components, is a problem that should be fixed before greater arms flows, not as an afterthought.  While history has made abundantly clear that armed rebellions almost always require external intervention of some sort from an established power to be successful, that self-same history proves the folly that comes from providing such material support without an established, unified opposition. Sending arms without a clear idea of how long the coalition that will be holding them will last without splintering is troubling at best.

Of course, Shaikh is nowhere near alone in his belief that the United States needs to somehow take a stronger lead in ensuring Syrian unity and training to the FSA. Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said as much yesterday, again invoking the idea of safe zones. Dan Trombly has written enough on the concept of safe zones to need my further input. Daniel Serwer has also critiqued Senator Kerry for his stance on arming the FSA, noting that the sorts of small arms that would be provided would not be much of a deterrent against tanks and aircraft.

Indeed, given the alternatives, I agree with Serwer that the Annan Plan is the best of a series of bad options for Syria. In viewing the progress of the Plan and UNSMIS, Richard Gowan manages to sum up the greatest challenges and promise of the two:

The problem is that UNSMIS is not really a peacekeeping operation. Though it is meant to supervise a ceasefire, it is in fact being deployed to watch over a live conflict — and the Security Council’s members know this. Russia has maneuvered to limit the mission’s ability to report on the fighting. Western diplomats have pushed back, demanding that UNSMIS must be able to move freely and have access to Syrian citizens.

So UNSMIS has been cast in two patently incompatible roles. For Russia, the mission is meant to be an alibi for continued inaction over Syria. For the West, it is meant to be a trigger for more severe measures — although options for applying new pressure on Damascus short of the use of force are becoming harder to find.

But it may be wrong to judge UNSMIS on its ability or inability to keep a non-existent peace in Syria. Instead, the real question is whether its potential failure will have any effect on international diplomacy over the crisis. If UNSMIS sinks without a trace, it will be a setback for the West and the credibility of U.N. operations elsewhere. If it acts as a trigger for some sort of decisive intervention, it may be counted as some sort of heroic failure. But it could leave lasting scars on U.N. peacekeeping either way.

UNSMIS and the Plan that laid its groundwork are indeed modest efforts to stop a worsening crisis. In seeking a managed, orderly path towards an end game in Syria, the United Nations Secretariat and the Security Council are attempting to contain the forces at play and prevent a renewed explosion of violence that ends in strife across the region. All the while, they insist that Assad end the campaign within his borders and bow to political pressure. In short, they are attempting to bring about a revolution without dancing. Pressure is mounting, though, to strike up the band and untether the opposition, into a cacophony of a free-for-all against the government. Mr. Annan is right to frame his Six Points as the last chance to prevent civil war. The real question though is how long the international community will wait before embracing the oncoming war and seeking to shape its outcome?

May 8, 2012

Rough Edges: The Changing Dynamics of the P-5

In the span of a few weeks, Sarkozy is out, Putin is back, and the dynamics of the United Nations Security Council may just be about to get very interesting. Francois Hollande’s victory in the French Presidential election only served to highlight the potential for a shift in the Council’s internal dymanics that 2012 brings. The United Kingdom stands alone of the P-5 in not having to deal with a changeover in government, or the potentiality of such an event, in 2012, thanks to the Fixed-terms Parliament Act of 2011. Of the other four, two have held their elections already, one more of a forgone conclusion than a true race.  The final, arguably most powerful members of the Council, still have several months to go of grappling for power. In spite of these changes, actual and potential, in the upper echelons of their ruling mechanisms, the Permanent Five of the Security Council remain in their seats, constant no matter the guiding foreign policy principles of the individual at the head of the government. Instead, rather than policy, it is the working styles and level of tension between the Five that is prone to be altered the most by year’s end.

Though it was the most easily foreseen shift, the one with the greatest likely repercussion on the Council is the return of Vladimir Putin to the de jure leadership of Russia. While many, myself included, had hoped that Dmitry Medvedev’s Presidency was more than just a placeholder, keeping the seat warm for Putin, that was clearly just a pipedream. With his re-ascendancy, there’s a toss-up for the likely foreign policy repercussions. On the one hand, Putin’s return could lead to an increased antagonism with the West, which Russia under Medvedev had seen wane slightly. The “reset”, already under siege on both sides, could shatter entirely with a more belligerent Moscow flexing its muscles.

Such a restoration would mean that the obstinacy showed by Foreign Minsiter Sergei Lavrov and UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin throughout Medvedev’s rule could be turned up to 11. Lavrov, himself a former Permanent Representative, is decidedly more hardline than his now former President, which means his unleashing could be quite the show in Parliament. In a practical sense, the Council’s current debates centered around whether the norms of sovereignty and humanitarian intervention have shifted may have an even sharper divide in the coming six years, as highlighted in a document signed by Putin yesterday declaring  that Russia will “counter attempts to use human rights concepts as an instrument of political pressure and interference in the internal affairs of states”.

Not everyone is convinced that this is the path that Russia will take in the Council, including on matters such as the Syrian conundrum. Thom Woodroofe believes that with Putin back in command, Russia may still serve as the impetus for peace between Damascus and the opposition. Such an event would be in line with the theory that Vladimir’s antagonism towards the West and the United States in particular during his campaign was a trumped-up act to remind Russians of his toughness. Regardless of its intent for domestic consumption, it may prove more difficult than predicted for Mr. Putin to walk back his rhetoric, as indicated in a CSIS paper on the topic. In either case, the Russian playbook in Turtle Bay is unlikely to significantly change, with the rules lawyering and veto threats that are a staple of Russian negotiation remaining constant; the most noticeable alteration will be the regularity with which these tactics are unleashed and against what broad concepts or minutiae they are brought to bear.

Meanwhile, Francois Hollande’s move to the Élysée Palace is unlikely to set off a scramble to determine France’s new position on the Council. While during the campaign, Hollande made much political hay over the style of Sarkozy’s diplomatic repertoire, the substance lay mostly untouched. The largest change that is likely to come from the shift may be seen in France’s interplay with two members of the Council that it has been in close alliance with over the past year and a half: the United States and non-permanent member Germany. The Germans and French have been working mostly in tandem to end the threat of a renewed Eurozone crisis, with Paris following Germany’s lead in calling for further austerity. That attitude is a large factor in Mr. Sarkozy’s toppling, and Mr. Hollande has made clear that he would prefer to veer away from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s prescriptions for growth. This split over economic matters may spill over into Turtle Bay for the remainder of Germany’s term, as a renewed, though highly moderated, Franco-German tension may be on the horizon.

As for the United States, Sarkozy was often called “Sarko the American” at home for his unabashed desire to ally with the US on most issues. While President-Elect Hollande has given no indication that he means to completely reverse the strengthening of ties that Mr. Sarkozy sought, he has already announced several policies that are sure to rub Washington the wrong way, including an early withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. With regard to working with the rest of the Council on its Agenda, much of that working relationship will be determined once Mr. Hollande names his Foreign Minister and Permanent Representative to the United Nations. French policy itself at the UN will largely remain unchanged, though slightly less sharp in tone. France will still take a keen interest in the affairs of its former colonies in Africa, and Mr. Hollande has made clear that he does not intend to roll back the former Administration’s beliefs on humanitarian intervention. Indeed, Mr. Hollande will likely prove to be almost as tough on Iran and Syria as Mr. Sarkozy himself.

China’s transfer of power is by far the most opaque of those taking place. Few ascendancies are certain, but among those that are include the naming of Xi Jingpeng as the successor of President Hu Jintao. While that may be decided, there appears to be a growing internal power struggle among the Politburo for just who will sit on the Standing Committee which runs China. The discord, borne of the precipitous fall of Bo Xilai, is severe enough to threaten a delay in the National People’s Congress, currently set to take place in September.

While the transfer of power is certain to take place, the effects of the leadership change is less likely to be the cause of any behavioral shifts in the Security Council. Rather, China’s position of non-interference in other states’ domestic matters and reluctance to use the veto are more likely to be tested by the pressures that come with a rapidly expanding role in the international community, with some like Ken Sofer predicting a sharp break from its non-interventionist foreign policy. The former can be seen both coming under stress in the situation between Sudan and South Sudan, as China seems to be reluctantly accepting its large role as a peacemaker, and fortified by China’s stance on Syria. This growing role will also put to the test China’s relationship on the Council with Russia, as the two often pair together to block what they see as overreach by the West.

Finally, the United States at the present only faces the potential turnover of power. President Barack Obama, who has made a firm point of emphasizing the United States’ role in and desire to work with the United Nations, is currently up for reelection, facing former Governor Mitt Romney as his challenger. Should President Obama come out on top, the largest change would come should he name Ambassador Susan Rice as his new Secretary of State, leaving the UN PermRep seat open.

But should Mr. Obama lose in November, a break from the past four years is inevitable. Mr. Romney, while unlike some of his colleagues in the Republican Party maintains that the United States should remain in the United Nations, is not a big fan of the organization. During the Republican primaries, Gov. Romney especially castigated President Obama over what he saw as a betrayal of Israel at the United Nations, saying that Obama went to “the United Nations and castigated Israel for building settlements. He said nothing about thousands of rockets being rained in on Israel from the Gaza Strip.”

Likewise, Mr. Romney has been scornful of the use of United Nations Security Council sanctions on Iran to halt Tehran’s nuclear program. A President Romney would surely scale back involvement with the UN, and likely heed advice to withdraw US membership from the UN Human Rights Council among other bodies. In practice at the Security Council, such a shift would see the majority of Western causes raised more frequently by the United Kingdom and France, with the United States stepping back. The US would be most involved at the Council to increase confrontation with Russia and China, as Gov. Romney has labeled Russia the United States’ number one ‘geopolitical foe’ at the United Nations.

The membership of the Security Council is constantly in flux, as five states rotate on and off at the start of each year, allowing a complete turnover every two years. But the Permanent Five stand apart, not just for the veto, but the continuity that their presence brings to the Council. Some states are chosen by the regions more often than others to take their place among the elected 10 (E10) states on the Council, but a ban on consecutive terms prevents the ascension of de facto permanent members to stand on par with the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, and Russian Federation. The continuity of policy that these states bring to the Council through that permanency can still be upset and sent off-kilter by disruptions in the working patterns and inter-Council dynamics that have come to be developed. 2012 comes hot on the heels of a year shaken by seismic changes in policy; this year, it’s the implementation of those policies and the way each member of the P-5 works with the other four that will bring the most trouble to Turtle Bay.

April 16, 2012

On Walter Russell Mead’s Unfamiliarity with the United Nations

I was prepared for a quiet morning today, as I assumed that after last weekend’s flurry of activity at the Security Council, I might have a bit of a respite. Oh, there’s a new Presidential Statement on the DPRK that was approved today, the first monitors are arriving in Syria as part of the resolution that passed on Saturday, and Sudan bombed a UN peacekeeping mission’s camp in South Sudan. But nothing other people couldn’t cover. Then I was linked to this piece on Walter Russell Mead’s blog, titled “The United Nations Today: A Case Study in Failure”. And my blood pressure skyrocketed. Rather than sputter incoherently at the screen, as was my initial plan of action, I’ve decided to go through the article paragraph by paragraph, in true Fisking style, and point out each and every bit of wrongness in this article. I hope you enjoy.

The United Nations is being flouted and ignored more often than usual these days — and the consequences are, as usual, nil.

…And we are off to an amazing start. With this opening line, we clearly establish the tone that we’re going to see from the rest of the article, one that stresses that the United Nations is an organization of decreasing relevance on the world stage. You can see why I might have a problem with this.

In Syria, arriving UN ceasefire monitors are greeted with artillery barrages. Iran continues to ignore resolutions on opening its nuclear facilities to inspectors. And North Korea merrily flouts UN resolutions as it fires rockets and tests nukes pretty much at will.

It is true that the ceasefire on the ground in Syria is shaky at best, though the scores of dead daily we’ve seen in recent weeks has ebbed into an estimated 14 dead yesterday as a result of an ongoing crackdown. However, it  has to be noted that the purpose of observer missions runs on parallel tracks. The first, the one that most often is associated with such missions, is to shame and pressure the instigators of violence into halting their efforts. The second, less considered, is to have a neutral set of eyes on the ground, able to report cogently on the actual situation. Previously, thanks to limiting journalists freedom of movement, governments have had to either rely on opposition movements’ numbers or the reports of the government in Damascus.

As for the Iranian point, negotiations this past weekend went off better than expected, with a new round set for May. That these talks are occurring at all is due to the incredible pressure that has been brought to bear on Iran since its nuclear program was first found in contempt of the IAEA. Four rounds of sanctions have been placed on Tehran, each stronger than the last, sanctions that were enacted by the Security Council as a consequence for defying the resolutions Mead mentions. And, as noted, the sanctions levied upon the DPRK for its previous missile tests are set to be strengthened by the Sanctions Committee of the Council that deals with North Korea in the wake of its most recent provocation. All of these actions against Iran and North Korea are because the international community, and the Security Council in particular, have found them in contempt of the law.

The reality is that the UN today is less prestigious and influential than it was in the 1940s and 1950s. There used to be a time when General Assembly votes actually meant something. Newspapers used to report its resolutions on the front page. And the Security Council, on those rare occasions during the Cold War when it could actually agree on something, was seen as laying down the basic principles along which an issue would be resolved.

Oh dear, there’s a lack of media coverage of the United Nations. Clearly, that must mean that it’s less important than it was when it was first created. This argument makes little sense to me, as I doubt there’s a correlation between the ebb of front page coverage of the General Assembly and a lack of prestige of the United Nations writ large. And while I would love if Security Council meetings were covered live in prime-time once again, I don’t think that the lack thereof indicates a weakening of the institution.

Further, regarding the point made about the impact Cold War resolutions had, this is correct, but only because we existed in a bipolar world at the time. The Council was almost permanently gridlocked, save on the few issues where neither the United States nor Soviet Union had pressing interests. So when the United States and USSR both agreed to something, it was essentially a done deal, as the two greatest powers on Earth had come to an accord. But apparently the fact that we live in a world with more distributed nodes of power works against the UN.

The increasing feebleness of the UN reflects several developments. The first is experience; as more and more actors figure out how toothless it is and how little its resolutions actually matter, more and more governments simply ignore it. And as that happens, it looks even more toothless, and even more governments conclude that they don’t have to worry much about it.

I disagree with the premise of the ‘domino effect’ described here. First, the majority of states that wind up “ignoring” resolutions are paying no mind to those passed through the General Assembly and its corresponding sub-organs and committees. These resolutions have never been taken as binding law, unlike those of the Security Council. The concepts within General Assembly resolutions can become international standards, or actual law through multilateral treaty, which are often organized through mechanisms of the General Assembly. They also serve as helpful precedent for international legalists when attempting to determine the opinion of the majority of states on Earth. As noted earlier, states that ignore the Security Council’s resolutions do so at a cost.

The second is incoherence. The General Assembly is based on an absurdity: the patently false idea that the governments of the world are equal in some real (as opposed to formulaic) sense to each other. India has as many votes in the General Assembly as Chad. As the number of weak states and irrelevant states grow, the political importance of the General Assembly declines to the vanishing point. Nobody cares what a collection of micro states, weak states and corrupt, shambolic states thinks about anything.

Of all the nerve! How dare we have one forum in existence where all states are equal?! What nonsense to have a place where Vanuatu dare talk to a Great Power as though they were each sovereign states as provided under the Treaty of Westphalia and the basis of the state-based system which international relations has existed under for centuries! Also, by the argument laid out here, the General Assembly was strongest during the colonial period when European powers controlled most of the people on Earth. Those “micro states” and “weak states” are the result of decolonization and the explosion of UN membership in the 1960s and 1970s. So noted, Mr. Mead.

The absurd and inconsequential nature of the General Assembly is reflected in the bodies and commissions that depend on it. Groups like the Commission on Human Rights are international laughingstocks and rightly so. At best they are irrelevant; at worse they actively undermine the causes they were, theoretically, established to advance.

The lack of research here is stunning. The UN Commission on Human Rights hasn’t existed for years. As for what they may have meant, the UN Human Rights Council, I’ll just leave this here.

The third is outdatedness. The Security Council represents a 1945 compromise between power realities and political correctness. That is, the UK, the US and the USSR were great powers in 1945. China and France weren’t, but it was convenient to pretend otherwise. Today, a majority of permanent Security Council members aren’t great powers, and there are significant powers (like India and Japan) who aren’t permanent members.

I will concede that Mead has a point here. The Security Council certainly does require reform of some sort to reflect the realities of today’s geopolitics, rather than those of 1945. Good luck though trying to get states to come to some sort of agreement of what that would look like, barring another World War-scale event to reshape the political landscape. Maybe Mead would like to lend his support to the Small 5′s proposed restructuring of the Council. (I will also note that while Roosevelt wanted to groom China to Great Power status as a way to keep Japan down, the potshots at France are actually pretty legitimate).

Also confusing is the statement that a majority of the Permanent Members are no longer Great Powers. I assume the first two he means would be the United Kingdom and France, which is up for debate in my opinion. That leaves Mead one shy of a majority. If he means that Russia no longer is worthy of Great Power status, I’m extremely curious about the metric that’s being used. Militarily, economically, the ability to project force into neighboring regions, the possession of nuclear weapons, I’d say that Russia still warrants the title.

A majority of the Security Council’s permanent members are European states and ex-great powers to boot. This is farcical, and the Security Council’s growing weakness is the natural and inevitable result.

First, I disagree that the Security Council is experiencing a “growing weakness” in the least. Even if such a weakening did exist, I doubt that the make-up of the Permanent Five would have anything to do with it. The Five are still the five legal nuclear states under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and each still possesses a considerable degree of military and economic power. That three of them exist (mostly) in Europe is inconsequential to the actual strength they weild.

Finally, the UN punches below its weight because it is so badly run. Corrupt and incompetent governments insist on placing political favorites in UN jobs because, well, because they can. Despite commendable efforts at reform, UN bureaucracies remain notoriously poorly managed, inefficient and the whiff of scandal is never far away. The UN designs its objectives badly and spends money inefficiently in pursuit of them.

I’ve said before, and will continue to say, that reforms are needed to enhance both the prestige and operational capacity of the United Nations. I’ll continue saying it, until it happens. But a car that requires a tune-up isn’t unusable, to use a stretch of a metaphor. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has proved to be a vocal advocate for change in the processes of the Secretariat. I’m looking forward to seeing what more the Secretary-General can accomplish in his second term, particularly related to hiring practices.

The picture of course is not all bleak. While most UN peacekeeping operations seem to be corruptly run and poorly managed, they do help tamp down on the violence in some of the places where blue helmets are deployed. And when the great powers really do want to do something together, the UN framework is a useful one for joint action.

And we have reached the only paragraph that I agree with. It took long enough.

I don’t favor abolishing the UN, but unless it figures out how to reform and restructure itself, it will continue to diminish as a force in international life. That is sad; while the world doesn’t need a world government, we could use an effective international body that facilitated international cooperation.

The facilitation of international cooperation is precisely what the United Nations does, as noted by the fact that we haven’t had a Great Power war since 1945. As David Bosco argued in his book “Five to Rule Them”, the UN Security Council acts as a pressure release valve for the Great Powers to vent their concerns about global situations, as well as providing a forum for coordination of response. Also, cooperation is seemed to very narrowly here refer to “prevention of armed conflict”. Anything actions taken by the United Nations not related to international security is cast to the side in this piece, as highlighting successes in eradicating diseases and providing shelter to refugees goes against the premise of massive failure.

In the initial tweet broadcasting this article, the United Nations was referred to as “The League of Nations, Round 2″. While its mission to get more people to click the link and read the article was successful, the premise is entirely misleading and false. The League, with its many structural deficiencies, was unable to prevent the Second World War, while the UN has thus far managed to keep us from a Third, all the while working tirelessly to improve the livelihood of the poorest and most in need. The United Nations needs work, that’s clear to anyone with eyes. But to label it a failure is to ignore both facts and history, something I would expect of a lesser scholar than Mead. I suppose that I have to forgive him; it’s clear from the many glaring errors and falsehoods that he just isn’t all that familiar with the UN.

April 14, 2012

Whirlwind Diplomacy: 48 Hours at the UN Security Council

The last 48 hours have been absolutely insane at Turtle Bay. You would think that one crisis coming to a head and landing before the UN Security Council would be crazy enough. But no. Over the last two days, the Security Council has dealt with three such crises, has at least one looming, waiting for it when they reconvene on Monday. I could easily devote an entire post to each of these issues, but instead, I’m going to attempt to round-up the highlights here in one fell swoop.

Guinea-Bissau

Only two weeks ago, the UN Security Council was praising the smooth nature of the first round of elections Guinea-Bissau. Today, the interim president, outgoing prime minister and a presidential hopeful are reportedly detained by the military in an attempted coup. Over the last 9 years, the small West African state has had 5 coups, or coup attempts, which averages at an attempt to overthrow the government every 1.8 years. The most recent of these endeavors was launched on Thursday, though it’s still incredibly unclear who’s currently leading the attempted overthrow and what their intentions are, aside from disrupting the current Presidential elections. While Jay Ulfelder rightly points out that two coups does not a trend make, it does raise the prominence of ECOWAS once again, coming off its successful management of the debacle in Mali.

As fate would have it, the UN Peacebuilding Commission’s Guinea-Bissau configuration was discussing the country’s elections as recently as Wednesday. Its chair, Ambassador Maria Viotti, Permanent Representative of Brazil, added her voice to the cacophony of immediate condemnations of the military’s machinations, including that of the Secretary-General. After meeting on Friday morning, the Security Council released a press statement that “firmly denounce[d] this incursion by the military into politics”, and called for ” the immediate restoration of constitutional order and the legitimate Government to allow for the completion of the on-going electoral process, including the legislative elections”. While seemingly a tame response, it is extremely early in the crisis, with very few facts established. As the situation takes shape, and should the coup leaders’ efforts continue, a Presidential Statement or resolution will come out of the Council on the matter. For now, it will likely be on the shoulders of ECOWAS, supported by Special Representative of the Secretary-General for West Africa Said Djinnit, to attempt to make sense of the clashes.

Sudan/South Sudan

Only the United Nations can force South Sudan to withdraw from its recently seized territory. At least, that’s what Juba said yesterday, in response to demands from the international community that they release their military hold on the border oilfield of Heglig:

Speaking in Nairobi, Pagan Amum, South Sudan’s lead negotiator at talks to resolve the dispute with Sudan, said his country was ready to withdraw under a U.N.-mediated plan.

“On the ground, we are ready to withdraw from Heglig as a contested area … provided that the United Nations deploy a U.N. force in these contested areas and the U.N. also establish a monitoring mechanism to monitor the implementation of the cessation of hostilities agreement,” he told reporters.

The South Sudanese insistence on a neutral peacekeeping force to separate the north and south is a departure from Thursday, when in a press conference, President Kiir of South Sudan scoffed at the Secretary-General’s call to pull back his forces, telling reporters he told Ban Ki-Moon “I’m not under your command”.

Khartoum isn’t waiting for the United Nations, however, and is launching an assault to retake the oilfield, as well as conducting strikes against several other areas of border territory. The Security Council issued a Presidential Statement on Thursday calling for the South to pull its forces from Heglig and for Sudan to end its aerial bombardments of border villages. The Sudanese Army shows no signs of slowing its advance, though, and the rhetoric from Juba remains bellicose. Should the two armies actually meet, an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council is predicted to be held on Monday. Ambassador Susan Rice has long-held a special interest in the Sudanese conflict, and is sure to use the United States’ role as President of the Council for April to the maximum effect.

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

It was meant to be a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of the hermit state’s founder, Kim Il Sung. Instead it turned out to be a fizzle, earning new condemnation on the DPRK, and the revocation of food aid from the United States. The food aid was to be part of a deal in which the North Korean government halted future tests of missile technology. While the DPRK was insistent that the rocket was meant to place a satellite into orbit, absolutely nobody took them at face value.

On the bright side, as pointed out by Danger Room, the North Koreans don’t particularly seem to be learning from their missile tests, and have shown little improvement in the last decade, in part because of the harsh sanctions that are levied upon the state after each launch. Also, in a surprising turn, the North Korean government has acknowledged that the launch was a failure, the first admittance of a lack of success by the state in recent memory.

The UN Security Council led off its busy Friday with closed-door consultations on how to respond to the DPRK’s launch, at the request of the United States. However, no PRST was agreed upon by the Council, despite language being circulated by the US Mission. In speaking to the press stakeout outside the Council chambers, Ambassador Rice stated the following on behalf of the Council:

The Security Council held consultations to address the serious situation and listen to the concerns arising from the launch by North Korea. Members of the Security Council deplored this launch, which is in violation of Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874.

Members of the Security Council agreed to continue consultations on an appropriate response, in accordance with its responsibilities, given the urgency of the matter.

This is hardly the strong statement that many wanted, or expected, from the UN, as almost all members of the Council agreed that the launch was in violation of previous UN Security Council resolutions and sanctions upon the DPRK. The divide lies in the appropriate level of action to be taken in response. China’s Ambassador, Li Baodong, remains insistent that any response the international community takes should be one to greater facilitate dialogue, and a return of the DPRK to the inert Six Party Talks. What this means is that China stands firmly opposed to any new and greater sanctions on the DPRK which the United States and the West would like to see. Weighing on the negotiations on a response also is the strong chance that North Korea, following its failure to launch a missile, will instead test another nuclear device to maintain its show of force.

Syria

As of 11:20 AM EDT on April 14th, 2012, the first resolution on Syria, Resolution 2042, was adopted by the United Nations Security Council, after a year of protests and conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic. After numerous warnings from Joint Special Envoy of the UN and League of Arab States Kofi Annan, the Syrian government in a surprise turn of events agreed to actually implement a cease-fire and the proposed Six Point plan. While they missed the original Tuesday deadline, in a report to the Security Council on Thursday, Annan indicated that President Bashar al-Assad’s government was at least partly complying with the terms of the peace plan. This was more than enough of an opening for Russia and China to begin to take credit for Annan’s successful efforts, and call for swift approval of a UN monitoring mission to verify the cease-fire.

The United States gladly went to work, and circulated a draft resolution that, in no uncertain terms, demanded that the Syrian government comply with the peace plan, and granted broad powers of investigation to the observer mission. Vitaly Churkin, the Russian Ambassador, balked at this sweeping authority and the political implications of the text, leading to the Russian Mission circulating its own stripped down version of the resolution. In the Russian draft, Western “demands” that Syria provide freedom of access to the monitors were replaced with language “calling upon” the Syrian government to do the same.

Both drafts called for an advance mission of thirty observers to be deployed immediately. According to the Department of Peacekeeping operations, these advance observers would be pulled from other UN missions in the region, with logistics provided from a base in Italy. These blue berets can be deployed into Syria in as little as twenty-four hours from now.

After much negotiation, a new draft was put into blue text, the version that immediately precedes voting. After a few technical changes by the Russian Mission, the draft taken up by the Council for a vote this morning has been approved by Ambassador Churkin, giving it the green light for adoption. The new version drops the “demands” language, and only “expresses its intention” to deploy a full observer mission, putting off its development for a later resolution, depending on how the cease-fire holds and a report from the Secretary-General on the 19th of April. The Secretary-General is also to report immediately to the Council on any violation by either side in the conflict.

With the passage of a resolution, a small sigh of relief is emanating from the Council chambers. But the battle over Syria is in no way over. The fight among the Security Council members is likely to continue anew once the Secretary-General gives his report in five days. Likewise, the ceasefire itself is tenuous at best; reports are still coming in of Syrian government attacks on protestors, and heavy weapons still remain within cities across the state. It is certain too that the Russian Mission will jump at the chance to lay blame at the feet of the Free Syrian Army should they launch an attack on the Syrian government.

In all, the last forty-eight hours have been a whirlwind of chaos and diplomacy. So many other issues still lay at the feet of the international community, from continued strife in Mali, to the outcome of the resumption of talks on Iran’s nuclear program which are taking place in Istanbul. The Security Council’s Agenda is still packed, and unlikely to lighten anytime soon.

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.

April 5, 2012

The Imagined Paralysis of the Security Council

‘The deadlock in the Security Council on Syria can be blamed squarely on the overreach of NATO’ is an idea that has been circulating for almost a year now. The missiles that were launched off the coast of Libya gave hope and fear of another intervention in Syria new life, and the United Nations Security Council was sure to take up the concept in a new wave of international interventions. But that never materialized. After each stifling of action against Damascus in the Council, the blame has been placed squarely on Libya. To wit, Joshua Foust has a new piece up, as of yesterday, wherein he takes a harsh look at the Libyan intervention, and sees in it the catalyst for a new paralysis in the Security Council:

From a strategic perspective, Libya has created a roadblock in the UN Security Council. NATO ignored the text of the UN Security Council Resolution that rejected regime change as an outcome of intervention.  As a result, now other UNSC members, namely Russia and China, will assume that any future moves to invoke the UN to safeguard civilians will be interpreted as code for advocating regime change. Russia and China oppose regime change on principle, and don’t want to see their own policies and integrity attacked in the name of human rights. But by discarding the limitations the UNSC placed on the intervention in Libya, NATO also discarded much of the legitimacy of the UNSC itself – thus making it less likely that the UN can be effective tool for protecting civilians in the future.

The main problem with this argument is that the text itself of Resolution 1973 does not reject regime change as an outcome of intervention. Nowhere in the document does it say that the Qaddafi government is to maintain intact or anything to that effect. The sole limitations on force that were incorporated into the text were that there would be no ground forces used in the implementation of the no-fly zone and that civilians were to be protected using all means necessary. Anything else that may or may not have been agreed upon between the members of the Security Council never made it into the legally binding document.

This is not the first time that arguments over the text resulted in a heightened sense of ambiguity on the ground. The most blatant example is the final version of Resolution 242, calling for an end to the Six Day War in 1967. Differences between the English and French texts have been exploited for decades, mostly by the United States and Israel. This isn’t to say that the practice is to be commended, just to note that it has been ongoing for decades. Vagaries in the approved text of Security Council resolutions are basically a fact of life, while the legitimacy of the Council’s resolutions has gone unquestioned. Any overreach by NATO in implementing Resolution 1973 is far from a death-blow to the acceptance of the Council’s words, by members and non-members alike. Instead, we’ve seen attempts to modify this practice, in Russian attempts on draft resolutions on Syria to insert language specifically ruling out the any possibility of interpretation for authorization of the use of force.

In the statements following the vote on 1973, the majority of Council members stressed the illegitimacy of the Qaddafi regime, using pre-written language that surely closely mirrored what was being said in closed consultations. While Russia did express concern about the lack of modifiers on the use of force, it is on the shoulders of the Russian Federation to veto in such an instant, if they truly did see the potential wiggle room as a threat to their national interests. Instead, Russia and China, along with Germany, Brazil, and India, abstained. Russia and China have been seen as eager to not repeat this “mistake” when discussing Syria, but was it really that much of a con job? In his speech, Churkin acknowledged the churn for the use of force in Libya; China likewise acknowledged that they are “always against the use of force in international relations”. And yet both abstained, noting the special circumstances surrounding Libya. Foust himself noted upon the passing of 1973 that it was “in essence, a declaration of war by the international community against Qaddafi”, something that surely didn’t escape the Chinese and Russian delegations.

Also, to say that NATO discarded the legitimacy of the UNSC in this instance is false. In fact, everything was done that is supposed to happen when dealing with the use of force. Unlike in the Kosovo situation, which was also labeled as a push to protect civilians and where force was used without official Security Council approval, there was a vote and a mandate for Libya. No ground invasion was launched and a no-fly zone was established: mandate complied with. The equality in which that mandate was carried out, as civilian protection in the face of rebel atrocities surely should have been considered, is a different matter. In any instance, the pushback that occurred in the Council by Russia and China cooled in the months and years following Kosovo. So too did the fury of France, China, and Russia when the United States circumvented the Council to launch an attack on Iraq. So to assume that Russia and China will henceforth push back on United States’ interests merely out of spite doesn’t hold up. If, and when, pushback does occur on Council action, it will be for the same reason it always does, because the resolution in question runs counter to the national interests of the vetoing party.  

Finally, aside from the thorny matter of Syria, a paralysis does simply not exist in the Security Council. For the last several months, the Council has been meeting and working on many issues outside of the crackdown in Homs and other Syrian cities. The most diplomatic energy has surely gone into convincing Assad to end the killing, but other discussions on matters of international peace and security have hardly ground to a halt. In the time since Resolution 1973, the Security Council has passed resolutions on the following situations: Afghanistan, Cote d’Ivoire, Haiti, Western Sahara, the Democratic People’s Republic of the Congo, Cyprus, the Sudan, the Middle East, Iraq, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Burundi, Guinea-Bissau, Timor-Leste, West Africa, non-proliferation, peace and security in Africa, terrorism, and children in armed conflict. Not to mention dozens of non-binding, unanimous, Presidential Statements and press statements, including now three PRSTs on Syria. Oh, and a further five resolutions on Libya.

While Foust does not do so directly in his piece, blaming Libya for the Security Council’s inaction on Syria, not only are observers seeing what they would like in their diagnosis, but also missing a larger picture. The Security Council has had disputes before on its role in maintaining international peace and security. It will continue to do so as the lines of sovereignty are tested again and again in the name of the protection of individuals. And the Permanent Members have had, and will continue to have, spats related to actions taken beyond what the Council has endorsed. But the overarching mechanism that is the Council will continue working despite these setbacks. They survived the Cold War; I’m pretty sure they’ll survive Libya.

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