Posts tagged ‘un’

September 11, 2012

The DPRK’s Victim Complex Strikes Again

I’m in the middle of writing what has turned into far too long a piece on the feasibility of a UN Rapid Response Force and needed something to distract me from how much more I have to finish writing. So I, of course, began browsing through the recently released documents of the United Nations that arrive in my inbox every afternoon. In today’s batch, I came across something that is on its face preposterous, in examination troubling.

The document in question is a memorandum of the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, sent from the Mission to the President of the Security Council on August 30th. The memo, titled “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea terms hostile United States policy main obstacle in resolving nuclear issue” is a wonderland of paranoia and revisionism, intended to frame the lack of resolution on North Korea’s nuclear weapons arsenal as being solely the fault of the U.S.

The entire ten-page memo is worth a read, if for no other reason than to get a good English-language look into the psyche of the North Korean government or at least the face it is putting forward. Also, it does actually provide a good background primer into the myriad of sanctions that the United States has levied upon the DPRK throughout its history. While the protestations against said sanctions ring hollow, the actual timeline and existence of them are factual.

Beyond that, the piece is immensely quotable. Indeed, if it weren’t for the fact that there were actual nuclear weapons in the hands of this regime, the whole thing would be ten times funnier. But here are some of the choicest quotes from the letter, pulled out for your enjoyment, with any emphasis my own:

“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, considering the concerns of the United States, agreed to a moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches and uranium enrichment activity while productive dialogues continue.
However, when the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea launched “Kwangmyongsong 3”, an artificial satellite for peaceful purposes, on 13 April last, the United States took issue with it, arguing that the space launch was based on the same technology as the long-range missile launch, and went ahead with unilaterally abrogating the 29 February agreement, upgrading sanctions on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
It is true that both satellite carrier rockets and missiles with warheads use similar technology. However…”

“The remaining three quarters of the sanctions — sanctions under the pretext of “threat to the security of the United States”, “proliferation of weapons of mass destruction”, “sponsor of terrorism”, “human rights”, “religious freedom”, “moneylaundering”, “missile development”, “human trafficking”, etc., many of which are based on absurd allegations — are applied at the discretion of the United States President or relevant departments of the United States administration.”

“Our nuclear deterrent for self-defence is a treasured sword that prevents war and ensures peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.”

Ridiculous as many of the statements may be, their bluster does seem to cast a shadow on the chances that the DPRK will be rejoining talks anytime soon on dismantling their nuclear arsenal. At the core of their argument, the North Koreans have what is almost a legitimate point, rationalizing their development of nuclear weapons as a deterrence against the United States. It’s true that the regime’s survival is threatened the Americans, though for different reasons than those given. Where they truly fail to gain sympathy, however, is in dismissing the legitimate concerns of the international community, expressed multiple times by the entirety of the Security Council, as “absurd allegations”.

For now, North Korea seems relatively content to wait out this current round of radio silence, as it has in the past, until it is unable to avoid negotiations any longer. In the meantime, Kim Jong-Un will tour revamped gymnasiums while a new food shortage looms, hacks will write outlandish travelogues, and the DPRK will continue to ask the world why it can’t see that they’re the true victims here.

August 19, 2012

Remnants: The UN Agencies Still Struggling to Save Syria

The world was surprisingly quick to write off the United Nations in Syria. According to all observers, the UN has been sidelined in having any sort of real effect on the ground. And why shouldn’t those observers believe that?

Kofi Annan’s efforts to bring the two sides to the table ended with his resignation as the Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League and a spot on his reputation. Veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi has agreed to take up the challenge, but there’s no guarantee that he’ll succeed where Annan couldn’t.

Meanwhile, intense fighting rages on in Aleppo and Damascus as the UN’s Observer Mission expires today, to be replaced by a much smaller UN Department of Political Affairs office headed by Brahimi. Military intervention was never a real option at the UN Security Council. Russia and China’s fear of Western armies marching into Damascus precluded even minimal sanctions against the regime. So the UN has clearly been forced out of Syria and will only be able to sit back and watch as civil war rages.

Except that’s not quite the whole of the situation. The focus placed on the UN’s efforts in Syria has always been the high drama of the Security Council with occasional glances at maneuvering in the General Assembly. That is far from the entirety of the United Nations portfolio on Syria. While other institutions have deadlocked, the various agencies and programs of the United Nations have been working to alleviate the suffering in any way they can without nearly as much coverage. Diplomatic battles between East and West make for compelling news. Not so much the story of those struggling to keep civilians alive in a time of civil war despite funding setbacks and political struggles.

Spread across Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, the UN High Commission for Refugees has registered over 100,000 civilians who have fled the violence unleashed by the Syrian government. Many more remain unregistered, living with family or friends. As many as 1.5 million remain behind, internally displaced within Syria’s borders, subject to daily shelling and caught between rebel and government clashes. Hundreds more are streaming across Syria’s borders daily and UNHCR is determined to house and feed them.

Before the protests against the Bashar al-Assad government began in 2011, Syria produced 90% of its drugs and medicines locally. The World Health Organization is working to tirelessly meet the needs that come along with bombardment of cities and rampant fear. The World Food Programme will keep addressing food shortages as they did when they fed over half a million Syrians in July. That number would have been almost double if not for the high levels of violence. All the while lesser known agencies struggle on with no support from the government, like the UN Population Fund as it continues to provide maternal health advice and treatment.

Later, after the shooting is done in Syria, there will be a new opening for political change no matter which side eventually prevails. A bloodied regime will need to finally accept real reforms faced with toppling or a new government will need the help of the world to solidify their now fractious country. There will be the UN in place, ready to accept calls for a new focus for its political mission.

A new peacekeeping mission may be authorized, to keep an actual peace this time. Eventually election monitors may be requested by the international community, should democracy find root in Syria. Those missions will be provided for and run by the Secretariat without any grudges for the months of insults against the capacity of the UN.  They’ll fade into the background as they have in so many other post-conflict areas with little attention paid by the media, less by the general public.

For now though, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is seeking $180M from donor governments to help alleviate suffering. So far UNOCHA has only received $71M, about 39% of the total needed, with another $21M pledged by the U.S. Several states have stepped up individually, including Saudi Arabia, but a joint effort is needed to facilitate the widest delivery of aid in this time of need.

The political track in Syria may yet find itself revived. Stranger things have happened in the last year in the Middle East. But until the day that there’s an actual agreement on what to do in Syria, it’s my hope that people not forget the valiant struggle being waged to keep as many people alive as possible and those carrying it out.

March 30, 2012

In Defense of the Dictator’s Club

In what should be no surprise to anyone who has had an eye on Geneva in the last few weeks, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon had a piece published in Foreign Policy‘s “Argument” section. The topic? The UN’s continuing unfairness towards Israel, in an article titled “Theater of the Absurd”. In this particular instance, the Deputy Minister has an issue with the Human Rights Council’s latest vicious attack against the much-maligned state, claiming that the body has been hijacked, much like the Commission on Human Rights before it.

Last week, at its 19th Regular Session, the UN HRC passed a resolution launching an investigation of the continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank by Jewish citizens of Israel. The vote on the matter was 35 in favor, 1 against, and 10 abstentions, with the lone “no” vote cast by the United States. Pay attention to those numbers, as they become important later.

In response to the decision, Israel has not only forbidden access to its territory to any investigation under the resolution’s mandate, but severed all working ties with the Human Rights Council. This is the environment in which the Deputy Minister penned his Foreign Policy article. In it, he cites the continued presence of tyrannical states on the Council as a preclude of its legitimacy:

Only 20 of the 47 nations on the UNHRC, a minority, are considered “free” by the independent NGO Freedom House. The majority of nations currently represented on this self-styled “human rights” body do not allow basic freedoms for their own people, let alone concern themselves with global civil liberties.

The current roster of the UNHRC is a virtual who’s who of global human rights offenders: It includes Cuba and Saudi Arabia — not to mention Mauritania, where modern-day slavery is an entrenched phenomenon. Last year, while Libyan despot Muammar al-Qaddafi was massacring his own people, the Human Rights Council drafted a report full of praise for the former dictator’s regime for its “protection of human rights.”

Let’s work our way backwards in examining these claims. The report the Deputy Minister mentions is the Universal Period Review, a mechanism the UNHRC has developed to look at the human rights records of every UN member state, Libya in this case. The New York Times article Ayalon cites pulls some choice quotes out of this draft UPR, signaling the corrupt nature of the endeavor. The praise from a who’s who of international pariahs comes across as highly disturbing. The problem with this narrative, however, lies in the fact that none of the states listed were members of the Human Rights Council at the time. Rather, the rapporteurs for each report, in this instance Argentina, Norway and Senegal, solicit input from literally every member state of the UN. Plenty of other states registered concern at Libya’s rights record in that text, and the recommendations for reform at the end include several that were rejected by Libya.

Minister Ayalon’s concerns about the makeup of the Council are somewhat valid, and we’ll address those shortly. However even by his math in the quoted text, something is off. In the event all the “not free” states voted in favor of the resolution, which they did, that wouldn’t give thirty-five votes, the number actually case. As it turns out, some of those free countries, such as Austria and Belgium, joined their non-free counterparts. The rest of them, save the United States, chose to abstain on the draft, rather than putting forward a no vote. This is hardly a ringing endorsement of the Deputy Minister’s position that the Council is being hijacked. Were Austria and Belgium forced to vote yes? Were the ten states who abstained muzzled? I would think not.

As I indicated before, I do have to concur that it is still disturbing that rights violators often make it onto the Human Rights Council. This is less a product of willful maliciousness but an unwritten set of rules in Turtle Bay. Most bodies like the HRC fill the seats through an allotment of a certain amount to each Regional Group at the UN. These groups then produce consensus candidates which take up their seats regardless of human rights records in the HRC or contributions to international peace and security in the Security Council. The fact that Togo sits on the UNSC this year is as much a fault of this system as Saudi Arabia’s presence on the Human Rights Council.

The Deputy Minister is also correct that Israel has had more resolutions specifically targeted at it than any other state. As he says, many human rights abuses escape inquiry at all. However, he is incorrect in asserting that the HRC refuses to make strides against legitimate cases of rights violations. For example, the work of the Council over the past year with regards to Syria are extremely commendable. Several special sessions have been held alongside the appointment of a special Commission of Inquiry to investigate the situation. Likewise its swift action against Libya last spring belies the normal argument that the Human Rights Council is full of dictators who are loathe to depose one of their own.

Many of these positive outcomes from the Council is a byproduct of the United States’ deciding to engage with and seek a seat on the Council, rather than shunning it as originally planned. It is with that in mind that the state of Israel should think much harder about its position towards the United Nations. I will readily admit that there does exist a bias among many of the Member States against Jerusalem. This has been reflected by the insane number of resolutions passed in the General Assembly condemning the state. But the solution is not, as Ayalon seems to suggest to pick up the ball and go home (emphasis mine):

Perhaps it is time to establish a new organization that more faithfully adheres to a true human rights agenda. Democracies should reassess their participation in a council that places political calculations over the protection of human rights, while providing cover to some of the world’s most brutal regimes.

The need to institute reforms at the United Nations is apparent to anyone who’s spent time studying it. But the idea of starting up a new organization, a League of Democracies as has often been fantasized about, should remain just that: a fantasy. For democracies putting off ties from states that do not fully live up to Western standards would be a critical mistake, especially when they outnumber you. Rather, constructive engagement is key to rising all states to the same level, rather than bringing them down as Ayalon seems to suggest.

In reality, the Human Rights Council is no more a “Theater of the Absurd” than Ayalon’s outrage is a farce. The Deputy Minister asserts that Israel will remain willing to work with UN inquiries that “don’t already confer guilt”, but if such inquiries are approved, or silently condoned, by those Israel would invite to a new organization, where does that leave Jerusalem?

March 13, 2012

Between the United Nations and the F-35, I’ll take the UN

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of finding a good nemesis. Not a true enemy, someone who you would enjoy watching crumble. Instead, I mean the sort of person who you know you will agree with absolutely nothing on, but are willing to have the debate with. Today I ran across Brett D. Schaefer, Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at the Heritage Foundation. In that role, Mr. Schaefer is the chief critic of the United Nations for Heritage. You can see where the two of us have a problem.

The piece that I stumbled upon today is a National Review article drafted by Mr. Schaefer called “The Costly United Nations”. In sum, the article slams the UN for going over budget in the much-needed renovation of its New York City Headquarters, noting that the final cost will be about $2B, or around 4% over the original budget. As Mr. Schaefer writes:

When the renovation was first proposed, more than ten years ago, the General Accounting Office (as the Government Accountability Office was then called) estimated it should cost from $875 million to $1.2 billion. But the project kept growing — winding up at roughly twice that size under the U.N.’s official, currently approved CMP budget of $1.9 billion.

But even that inflated baseline may be a gross underestimate. Last week, New York architect Michael Adlerstein, the executive director of the U.N. renovation and a U.N. assistant secretary general, informed the U.S. and other U.N. member states that the cost overrun will be not $80 million, but $265 million. And even that new estimate is subject to upward revision, because it does not include certain foreseeable costs.

Schaefer goes on to praise Ambassador Joseph Torsella, the United States Representative for Management at Reform to the UN, for expressing “outrage” at the process. Now, before we continue, I want to say that I don’t have any problem with Ambassador Torsella. The man has a difficult job, with a dual nature. On the one hand, he needs to go to the United Nations and butt heads constantly with the Fifth Committee of the General Assembly and the Secretariat, the bodies that appropriate and spend the UN’s biannual budget, and honestly try to convince them to spend less in a time of global austerity. At the same time, he has been tasked with enacting a policy of the Obama Administration’s that I like to think of as the “Cruel to be Kind” Doctrine, to place public pressure on the UN in order to allow other projects to move forward that benefit the United States without domestic public opinion trampling over Administration priorities. It’s a tough balancing act, but Ambassador Torsella does so with distinction, managing to call out issues that the United Nations has without damning the institution as a whole as many in his position would.

In any case, Amb. Torsella has stated publicly on his Twitter account that the UN’s Capital Master Plan (CMP), which is running the show as far as renovation is concerned, to “determine how these additional costs occurred & take prompt measures to reduce them to complete the project w/o new assessments”. Which is all well and good; as I said, that’s Ambassador Torsella’s job. However, Schaefer insists that any new costs associated with the renovation, including those for security enhancements, be taken from the UN’s general budget. This concerns me, as Amb. Torsella has already won a 5% reduction in the UN’s 2012-2013 budget, only the second time in fifty years that the budget has been smaller than the previous yer. While the US does bear 22% of the budget, I’m wondering just where Schaefer believes the UN should divest its money to fund the HQ renovation. From peacekeeping missions that are already underfunded and understaffed? From its development missions, which quietly exceed expectations and belie the meme that the UN isn’t a force for good in the world?

That all being said, I must concede that Mr. Schaefer’s piece isn’t completely wrong. There are legitimate concerns with the acquisitions and prourement process at the United Nations. Papering over the need to enhance transparency and accountability at the UN hurts the organization as much as directly attacking it in my view. What does concern me, as part of a larger picture, is the obsession that organizations and individuals have with damning the UN for being a den of scum and villainy. Yes, the UN Headquarters renovation is running over budget. But as someone who’s spoken from the rostrum of the General Assembly, trust me, the building needed it. Asbestos in the walls, a weird water stain on the wall of the General Assembly, fire codes that haven’t been met since the 1960s, it’s a miracle the building hasn’t collapsed already.

So what we see here is that when a United Nations project goes 4% over budget, the Heritage Foundation pounces. Because it can, as the lobbying arm of the UN is minimal at best, no offence to the Better World Campaign, and thus lacks the adequate heft to pushback against Heritage’s narrative. The UN’s overspending, however, pales in comparison to that of the F-35 project. Despite the fact that the project has gone as much as 64% over its original budget over the last decade, or sixty percent more than the UN’s HQ upgrade, and that the thing is still in development, the Heritage Foundation is still backing its horse in this race. The  Foundation’s Dr. James Carafano went so far as to evoke the spirit of Col. John Boyd, the Air Force’s legendary fighter tactician and developer to push forward with the F-35 in an article that was not well received by some of Boyd’s compatriots. Heritage is also allowed to do this because they can; the defense lobby is one that nobody wants to tackle, and to come out against military spending is unpatriotic, the exact inverse of coming out in favor of the United Nations.

I bring up the F-35 mess because the United Nations is a national security imperative, whether Heritage wants to admit it or not. It may not have the same appeal as achieving tactical superiority in aerial combat, but strategic concerns and decisions are often less exciting that the tactics that go about in bringing them to bear. In short, the United Nations exists as a place where the vast myriad of US foreign affairs priorities collapse into a single space. Nowhere else can we have informal conversations with regimes that hate us and we’re none too fond of in return. Nowhere else can we meet with both China and Russia, our Great Power counterparts on the other end of the “free and open democracy” spectrum, and discuss matters of shared international concern and, more importantly, determine the red lines among ourselves for what each of the P-5 is willing to consider in terms of action. So the cost of remodeling the Headquarters is costing slightly more than originally planned for? Oh well. The building itself houses an institution that we need, and in the grand scheme of things the extra costs that will be assessed to the United States will be minimal and be part of a shared burden. In the choice between Turtle Bay and an airplane that has yet to be approved as operational, or one that suffocates pilots like the also over budget upgrades to the F-22, I’ll take the UN any day.

[UPDATE: In the four hours since I hit “publish”, the Headquarters project over budget estimates have risen to 14.2% over, rather than 4, or a total of $265M. While this is frustrating, I stand by my original argument.]

March 8, 2012

UNESCO. C’mon. You’re killing me.

As you may have noticed by now, I have an affinity for the United Nations system, in all its splendor and for all its bruises. As such, I take it quite badly when portions of that system are attacked unfairly. The latest whipping boy of the system has been the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). For having the most benign sounding name ever, it is constantly finding itself in turmoil it seems. In the 1980s, the Reagan Administration withdrew from the organization entirely. We returned in 2003, but relations aren’t exactly prime right now.

Last year, funding was stripped from UNESCO by the US and Israel for its members voting to allow a seat for Palestine as a full member state. Emphasis on “state”. A relatively obscure law in the United States kicked in, revoking all funding for UNESCO and threatening the same to any other body within the United Nations system that allowed for a Palestinian State to take a seat, circumventing Israel/Palestine peace talks. I did not approve of this move. The Obama Administration has made clear that it wants to get a waiver for the current fiscal year for UNESCO from Congress, and has included its normal funding levels in the FY13 Proposed Budget. The likelihood of this being approved by Congress is lower than the odds that Joseph Kony will see how reviled he is on Facebook and turn himself in. But I digress. It was a move that showed support for the United Nations, and so I was happy.

But UNESCO’s Executive Board is currently meeting, and the collection of states are taking steps that make me bang my head against my desk and cause me to question my support. Before continuing, let me make clear that I know this goes against my separation of Member States from the institution, but really now, I feel this is worthy of my scorn. The first issue is a bit more complex than the second. Equatorial Guinea’s strongman president Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo donated a large sum of money to UNESCO in 2008 to establish a life sciences prize named after him. Considering Equatorial Guniea’s rampant corruption, drug trafficking, and abuse of human rights, there was mild consternation at this prize by the human rights community, up to and including Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The prize has been on hold since it was first approved by UNESCO’s Executive Board due to backlash.

Until recently, that is. Obiang, rather than withdrawing the prize as recommended by the Executive Director of UNESCO, has graciously allowed it to move forward without his name. Human Rights Watch, among others, isn’t of the opinion that the prize should be offered at all, with or without his name, and UNESCO’s own lawyers indicate that the prize can’t be awarded with a name change due to the stipulations of the donation. But, being a bold champion of freedom, a commission of the Executive Board has approved the prize by a vote of 33-18 with six abstentions. The full Board still has to approve, but with that lopsided a vote, I’m not sure a renewed campaign to sway the outcome will be effective in time.

The second rage-inducer is quite a bit more straightforward. The international community has, for a full year now, been on course for a systematic removal of Syria’s authority and role in the system. Unfortunately, as I’ve noted before, Syria isn’t a part of many international organizations to begin with. But last year, for reasons passing understanding, the Arab bloc at UNESCO put forward Syria as their representative to fill a seat on the Committee on Conventions and Recommendations, which has a human rights component to it. The West has been pushing since then to have Syria removed, which would be in line with actions taken against Libya in the run-up to the passage of Security Council Resolution 1973.

According to a copy of the draft resolution obtained by Nabil Abi Saab, however, that doesn’t look to be in the cards. As Reuters explains:

Ambassadors, including those of the US, France, Britain, Germany, Qatar and Kuwait, had asked in December for Syria’s situation to be discussed at the 58-member UNESCO executive board meeting this week.

Seventeen states led by Russia last week attempted to block the move and appear to have managed to convince members to water down the resolution.

“It is a strong condemnation. Eighteen countries of the executive council have signed it and it will be presented later today for vote,” a diplomatic source at UNESCO said.

A strong condemnation is great, really. But it shows far less resolve than is warranted for the situation at hand. What’s worse, it was such a simple move, removal of a country that is being further isolated by the day from a committee that, let’s be honest here, doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Rather than sending a message of warning to Damascus, the passage of this resolution shows a lack of unanimity from the world that has been the plague of formulating a political solution to the crisis. The continued presence of Syria on the committee also manages to drag down the credibility of UNESCO, already low in the United States and potentially spreading to other Western states. Again, I understand that the Executive Board is composed of Member-States and so their decisions are outside the control of the Executive Director and Secretariat of UNESCO, but between the acquiescence to the delivery of the Obiang prize and the lack of resolve on Syria, UNESCO is letting me down here. So get it together, UNESCO. I want to keep on defending you, but you have to give something back to this relationship.

January 15, 2012

Off-Limits: Asia’s future on the UNSC’s agenda

A little over a year and a half ago, I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Asian Studies. The latter half of that combination most likely wouldn’t be all that apparent, if you were to only read this blog. Going through my last few months of posts, and particularly looking at my handy word cloud of tags at the bottom of the page, I realized the other night that despite my major, I rarely find myself writing on issues dealing with the Asian continent. Not counting Southeast Asia, i.e. Pakistan, and matters in Western Asia/the Middle East, that is.

This is concerning to me for several reasons; I decided to major in Asian studies at MSU because I knew that’s where the future of International Relations would be grounded. With this in mind, I decided a few nights ago to undertake a “self-pivot” and started loading up on books and Twitter streams dealing with Asia, and China in specific. But that doesn’t really explain the why of my lack of writing about Asian affairs. After pondering a little further, it hit me. My overarching theme in writing has dealt with issues that have been highlighted on the agenda of the UN Security Council. The Security Council, it turns out, doesn’t interact strongly with Asia, instead focusing the majority of its attention on the Middle East and Africa.

In the last year, the Security Council, excepting myriad resolutions on Afghanistan, passed but two resolutions focused on situations in Asia. The first was a further continuation of the sanctions regime on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and an extension of the mandate of the Panel of Experts appointed to oversee their implementation. The sole other was an extension of the mandate of one of only three missions currently authorized in Asia, which oversees the stability of East Timor. This was reflected in the Presidential Statements put forward by the Council as well; it seems nothing happening near the Pacific warranted comment by the members of the Council.

Even the simmering tensions between Thailand and Cambodia managed to remain off the radar of the Security Council. Skirmishes between the two over an area of disputed territory containing an ancient temple left 18 dead in April. A judgment by the International Court of Justice in July demanded that both sides withdraw their troops from the disputed area, a demand that was promptly ignored. This alone could, and should, have placed this topic on the Council’s docket. Instead, the two countries were thankfully able to avoid the shooting war that was very much in the realm of possibility, bilaterally agreeing to withdraw their troops in December.

Taking proactive steps in the case of Thailand-Cambodia could have been a boost to the credibility of the Security Council, returning it to its early roots of playing direct mediator in arising conflicts globally. Situations with less clear-cut implications for international peace and security have brought to bear the will of the UNSC, so why not this one? Why, despite the broad mandate of the Security Council under Chapter VI of the Charter, are so few topics involving Asiatic countries placed on the agenda of the Council?

The answer lies in the geopolitics that permeate every instance of conflict that takes place in that corner of the world. As of now, there is no true hegemonic power on the Asian continent, despite fears that China wants to claim the title for itself. Several ascendant powers in the region are constantly jockeying for position over the smaller states in the region. China, India, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Australia, all want to control their own destinies in the coming decades, and each has reasons to keep matters of their security in their own home court. Any member state has the ability to bring matters they feel affect international peace and security before the Council; many Asian states choose not to, preferring regional organizations such as ASEAN to bring their grievances before multilateral judgment.

China’s position on the Security Council doesn’t help matters. Matters that are brought before the Council that aren’t to its liking quickly receive the veto that China so rarely issues. As an example, the situation in Myanmar managed to make its way onto the SC’s agenda in 2007, a resolution was drafted by the West, and found itself quickly toppled by China and Russia. The one area where China begrudgingly allows the UN Security Council to intervene is in the matter of North Korea, but even there the People’s Republic prefers to take matters through the informal Six-Party Talks mechanism.

The same “backyard principle” can be seen in the lack of Latin American issues that make their way to the Security Council. As an example, Mexico, where drug violence has claimed nearly as many deaths as the uprising in Syria, though criminal in nature rather than state-based, has practically zero chance of making the Council’s agenda. The United States’ domination of hemispheric matters makes it so that issues south of its border will never make their way to the Security Council unless in times of absolute necessity. Excessive meddling from other states as during the Cuban Missile Crisis may prompt this sort of push, and even then only to attempt to rally the international community’s sympathy or push the US’ own narrative.

Further, the balance of the Permanent Members of the Council in terms of taking proactive steps is inherently skewed away from strong action in Asia. The more liberal of the P-5, the United States, France, and United Kingdom, draft and present the majority of resolutions that involve strong action on the part of the international community, including actions taken under Chapter VII of the Charter. Russia and China, for their part, are much more interested in the status quo, preferring to invoke issues of sovereignty in the face of demands for action by the other permanent members. This pattern, as I looked at in one of my first posts, is unlikely to change anytime in the near future.

The Middle East and Africa as it stands are the home of the vast majority of conflicts that the Council deems appropriate to deliberate upon. In these states, there is either a unified will to act or a complete lack of interest to block such action. In the former, the resources invested in the regional and its geostrategic importance to all five permanent members, have earned it a place on the agenda in perpetuity. In the latter, there is no real power base, no states who have enough heft to push back on international action within the region, leaving its crises free to be placed before the UNSC.

The problems of Asia are not likely to stay confined to Asia in the coming future. The potential for conflict in the South China Sea remains high and joins any number of looming flashpoints in the region. As the United States seeks to balance China’s rise by strengthening its ties with the other rising powers, however, the likelihood of China allowing those very conflicts to come before the Council will dwindle. The halcyon days of the early nineties, where issues bombarded the Council constantly with resolutions passing by the dozen on issues around the world with China known primarily for its abstention may well be finally past. While I highly doubt we will return to a Cold War-level of stagnation on the Council, I am beginning to worry that we will see a return to the era when only matters not directly within the sphere of influence of either of the new superpowers will be able to reach the ears of the Security Council.

November 21, 2011

Surprise, GOP! Turns out the UN actually likes human rights. Who knew?

Tomorrow night, after an much-maligned showing two weeks ago, the Republican candidates for President are giving it another shot. That’s right, it’s time for another “foreign policy debate” between the Nine Who Would Be King (or Queen in the case of Representative Bachmann). There are sure to be some insane things said on the stage at the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Constitution Hall come Tuesday but one thing is certain to unite all of the office-seekers: a near pathological revulsion for the work, and for some the concept, of the United Nations. The Washington Post had an apt couple of paragraphs on the issue:

“Bashing the United Nations seldom fails as an applause line for Republican presidential candidates.

Mitt Romney says the U.N. too often becomes a forum for tyrants when it should promote democracy and human rights. Newt Gingrich pledges to take on the U.N.’s “absurdities.” Herman Cain says he would change some of its rules. Rick Perry says he would consider pulling the United States out of the U.N. altogether.”

I’d like to point out that Speaker Gingrich’s animosity is particularly impressive, considering his past history of supporting the need for the United Nations, co-chairing a panel in 2006 with recommendations on how to improve the body without utterly destroying it.  UN Dispatch has a great piece on the former Speaker’s love for the UN. But I digress.

If you were to believe the hype, the United Nations is a larger hive of scum and villainy than Mos Eisley spaceport in Star Wars, where a cadre of despots and tyrants sit twirling their mustaches and plotting ways to defame the United States. Counter to the narratives that are spun and deployed by the Republican candidates and their campaigns, the United Nations works frequently to promote human rights and shine light on the darkest corners of the world. Lest they forget, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a product of the United Nations. The Human Rights Council, once derided as toothless and spurned by the United States to the point of not seeking a seat on the initial balloting, has grown to the point of issuing strong statements of condemnation against the very regimes it once sought to protect and is seen by the Obama Administration as a critical tool in the United States’ foreign policy toolbox.

Earlier today, the Third Committee of the General Assembly: Social, Cultural, and Humanitarian  took up three draft resolutions, under their agenda item 69(c): Human rights situations and reports of special rapporteurs and representatives. These three drafts focused on human rights abuses in Myanmar, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Resolutions on the last of the three’s systematic violations of human rights norms have become almost an annual occurrence, and this year’s rebuke comes hot on the heels of the General Assembly voting to condemn the state for its role in an alleged plot against the Saudi Ambassador to the United Nations. The full text of the resolution on Iran can be found here.

“Those drafts are nice, but there’s no way that the world is actually growing more intolerant of human rights. Give me something concrete to prove that the UN as a whole actually supports human rights,” I hear you say. Fortunately, there are things like ‘numbers’ and ‘facts’ to assist us in making our case. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’s Mission to the United Nations has helpfully broken down the votes of the last two year’s votes on these proposals into a helpful chart.

Votes in GA3

Compiled by the UK Mission to the UN (@UKUN_NewYork)

As you can see, all three resolutions passed by a sizable margin this year. It is true and deserves to be noted that there are an unfortunate number of abstentions on the proposals. However, if those countries that abstained truly wanted to scuttle the Iranian proposal, it would have been within their ability to cast their votes in the “no” column, rather than allowing it to pass. The Burmese and Korean votes had no such chance, with an overwhelming amount of support in their favor.  The vast majority of Member States in the Third Committee, composed of all 193 members of the UN, are in favor of states following the basic principles of human rights in dealing with their citizenry, and use the United Nations as a forum to express that support. The resolutions will now proceed to the General Assembly as a whole for approval.

Tomorrow night is sure to bring outlandish statements, and more than likely a few gaffes, but let’s not allow them to bring forward untruths. The fact is that the United Nations is not just the sum of its parts, but greater than them. As an institution it has been at the forefront of protecting human rights for decades. As a collection of states it has sought to greater and greater degrees over time push for the rights inherent in all peoples of this Earth. The numbers above aren’t the best, but they’re improving. And they signal a hope for the future. Here’s hoping that the GOP can read those stats the same way.

November 1, 2011

There is literally nobody in the Senate I don’t hate right now

So yesterday I cobbled together a piece on the US withdrawal of funds from UNESCO and why I thought it was a horrible idea in terms of diminishing US soft power. Well, it turns out the domestic political situation surrounding that choice is even worse than I thought. I hit Congress pretty hard, but assumed that it was mostly Republicans who would come out in support of the law as it stands. In the words of Chuck Testa, nope. As reported by Josh Rogin in Foreign Policy:

Will senior Senate Democrats intervene on behalf of the U.S. role in international organizations? Not likely. Democratic senators told The Cable they either support cutting funds to U.N. organizations that grant membership to the Palestinians, or at least don’t plan to do anything about it.

“We’ve put a very clear marker down in terms of what would be the result if there was an effort to prematurely declare a Palestinian state and [the administration] is implementing what they said they would do,” said Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI). “It was the right thing to do and they should be implementing it.”

Levin said that he hoped U.S. retaliatory action would slow down the Palestinian drive for recognition, and maintained that the United States would increase its influence by carrying through on its threats. The vote in UNESCO’s General Conference was 107 to 14 in favor of Palestinian membership, with 52 abstentions.

Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) told The Cable today he was fine with the cutting off of funds to UNESCO.

“That’s what the law requires. It’s been there for 20 years and whether I support it or not, that’s the law,” he said.

That’s…about the opposite of the answer that I was hoping to hear from these two, Democratic Senators with a long history of working with global organizations and advocating a robust US role. You’d think that after their combined time in the Senate, the house of Congress that actually does get something of a say in foreign policy matters Constitutionally, that they would see that defunding UNESCO and potentially other international institutions represents a step backwards in the projection of American power. I guess not though.

I suppose that it’s understandable to wish that more organizations worked like the Senate, where one voice out of a hundred can grind things to a halt and cut off the flow of funds until they get their way. Also understandable how working in the Senate can lead to only viewing these UN bodies in light of the will of the whole on Palestinian statehood, while managing to block out every other thing that they’re working on that benefits the United States. My respect for the Senate as institution is plummeting by the second.

It’s both slightly comforting and infuriating to hear from the same report that Hill staffers on both sides of the are frustrated that the Obama Administration doesn’t have a way to work around the law or solve the crisis. So rather than offering up legislation to solve the issue that an earlier Congress created, we have Congressional offices hoping that the President can find a way to circumvent them. Right.

October 31, 2011

U.S. pulls UNESCO funding, but soft power is for chumps anyway, right?

Immediately following this morning’s announcement that Palestine is now the newest official member of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the U.S. State Department came out with an announcement of their own: United States funding would be cut to the organization. The $60M check that the U.S. had written up for the Paris-based organization is going right back into Hillary Clinton’s pockets.

The move isn’t much of a surprise for anyone who’s been watching the deliberations in the various organizations that fall under the United Nations’ umbrella. Aside from the General Assembly and Security Council, UNESCO has been the body on the receiving end of the strongest diplomatic push by Palestine for recognition. Lawmakers on the right in the U.S. have been calling for defunding of any U.N. body that allowed Palestine as a full member since early September, and they unfortunately have the right of it. Under a U.S. law passed in 1994, funding is to be withheld from any part of the U.N. system that allows Palestine as a full member, written in such clear language that it would be difficult for the Obama organization to circumvent it. The part of the law that concerns us has been helpfully posted by the NY Times here:

“(a) Prohibition.--No funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act or
any other Act shall be available for the United Nations or any specialized
agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the
same standing as member states.
“(b) Transfer or reprogramming.--Funds subject to the prohibition
contained in subsection (a) which would be available for the United
Nations or any specialized agency thereof (but for that prohibition) are
authorized to remain available until expended and may be reprogrammed
or transferred to any other account of the Department of State or the
Agency for International Development to carry out the general purposes
for which such funds were authorized.”

While the President’s hands were tied on this one, that doesn’t mean the international community has to like it. Even Israel didn’t really want Washington to cut off funding to Turtle Bay, as was pointed out by Zvika Kreiger in the Atlantic earlier this month.  The United States has been helping Israel gain membership and influence on several U.N. bodies, including the UN Development Programme, and has been pushing for an initiative through UNESCO launch education efforts on the effects of Holocaust in various member states. With U.S. funding cut off, that goal may be a little bit further out of reach.

The less awful news is that the funding that the $60M won’t be stricken from the State Department’s budget, and can be used at the Secretary’s discretion to fulfill the job of UNESCO. And the United States’ membership in UNESCO remains intact, unlike under President Reagan back in the 1980s. But the job of UNESCO isn’t easily done by one state, nor should it be. The $60M could be used for any number of cultural agenda pieces, meant to bridge the divides between perception of America and reality in states that are hostile towards our policies, but coming directly from the US, rather than through an international organization, propaganda is a word that you’re going to hear thrown around a lot. Furthermore, it’s harder to push what many states sees as an unpopular pro-American agenda without the finances to back up your goals. The cultural dialogue promoted by UNESCO forms a key part to the smart power equation championed by the Obama Administration and HRC in particular.

Nobody is saying that participation in UNESCO is vital to the United States’ strategic national security needs. What I am saying quite strongly though is that taking part in UNESCO to the full extent certainly makes things easier for the United States. For example, as UN Dispatch just posted, one of the programs indirectly stripped of funding is designed to raise literacy in Afghanistan, especially among police officers. No worries though, I’m sure that having illiterate Afghan military and civilians serves our overall strategic goals there, so long as Palestine isn’t recognized as a state by anyone.

Further, as several commentators, including Senator Timothy Wirth of the United Nations Foundation, pointed out, there’s a slippery slope involved. Should the law stand on the books in its present form, there is the real chance that Palestine continues its push, resulting in more U.S. withdrawal of funding from bodies in which membership more directly serves our interest. The World Intellectual Property Organization is next in the Palestinian’s sights, and as boring as I personally find IP issues, American companies love having an arena for redress with internet piracy on the rise. I guess Congress is pro-piracy now?

There’s a larger picture here than just UNESCO and what U.S. pulling funding means, and it concerns the overall standing of soft power in the Washington policy planning context. What it boils down to is that soft power is a stronger currency than many in Congress are willing to admit. Soft power doesn’t win wars, but it does prevent them, but it would seem that doesn’t make for as good a campaign slogan as “friend of Israel”, even when we’re really doing Israel no favors. In the complex world we reside in, withdrawing a tool from our diplomatic arsenal is handicapping United States success in nipping issues in the bud before kinetic action is even necessary. Recognition of this fact is crucial for America to prosper in this century, that our defense industry can and should remain strong while giving diplomacy its full range of options. One less microphone for the U.S. to share its vision of the world is one more potential flare-up that we’ll have to address with force in the future. Our annual $80M, 22% of UNESCO’s budget, could have bought us a lot of influence in the world. Instead, we have traded it away for a symbol that means less than nothing. That $60M saved can be re-appropriated in the next budget to buy a couple of missiles, though. I’m sure that will benefit us more in the long run.

September 29, 2011

Venezuela is basically the Lady Gaga of the United Nations

Hear me out on the title. The day before yesterday ended the General Debate of the General Assembly this year. I wish I’d had more time to watch all of the speeches and critique them properly, but I can’t complain. At least I got to catch some. I know a few days ago, I half-jokingly lamented the lack of dictators this year to provide more…colorful moments. BUT WAIT.

Thankfully I had time to actually catch the Venezuela’s speech to the GA, always a crowd pleaser. Mr. Red Beret himself, President Hugo Chavez, was absent this year, due to his undergoing cancer treatment which, despite my opposition to almost all of his polices, I hope goes well. President Chavez’s illness didn’t mean that his speechwriters were unable find time to pen a marvel of a work for the Minister of People’s Power for Foreign Affairs Nicolás Maduro Moros. It was a doozy. Which leads me to make the analogy in the title, that Venezuela is basically the Lady Gaga of the United Nations.  I’ll explain after a bit, but first I want to cover just some of the things that Mr. Moros went over in his speech.

Once I realized I needed to write about this, the first words I put to paper were “Oh man, this is ridiculous”. So that I hope sets the tone for the rest of this. In one of his more sensible phrases, Mr. Moros insisted that the capitalist forces of the West are “marching towards ecocide”. From there he suggested that the West still follows the ideology of the conquistadors, incredulous that despite the energy crisis, the financial crisis, and food crisis, that capitalism continues to reign.

Mr. Moros then, like a high school senior giving a valedictorian speech, pulled out a quote from US scientist Linus Pauling:

“I believe that there is a greater power in the world than the evil power of military force, or nuclear bombs–there is the power of good, of morality, or humanitarianism. I believe in the power of the human spirit.”

Nothing wrong with that quote, per se. It just seemed like an odd choice. Or maybe not, because he continued on, saying it is “imperative to unleash a great counter political offense to prevent global war”. Venezuela called for the establishment of a broad peace-based alliance against war, saying that warmongers and especially the military-financial leadership must be vanquished. In a particularly fun point, he managed to call NATO “the military arm of the American empire”.

And here’s where it gets fun, and proves that someone at the Venezuelan mission has not done their homework. The Foreign Minister railed against NATO ‘violating’ the no-fly zone imposed in SC/Res/1973:

“What has become of the no-fly zone of 1973? How could NATO undertake more than 20,000 missions if there was a no-fly zone? Is this not a complete denial?”

So. I actually have read SC/Res/1973. And it clearly says that the no-fly zone does not apply to those Member States that are acting to enforce the no-fly zone. This being a Chapter VII resolution and all, acting under Article 42, this effectively means that so long as countries give the Sec-Gen a heads-up, they can fly as many sorties as they want to enforce the no-fly over Libya. The resolution also authorizes Member States to “to take all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya”. As anyone who actually pays attention to the UN knows, “all necessary measures” means military force. So while the argument could be made that NATO should technically be bombing the NTC forces attacking Sirte right now, Mr. Moros doesn’t quite manage to make a valid point.

Another buzz on the truth-meter is Mr. Moros’ claim that NATO introduced heavy weapons to Libya’s rebels. I have found absolutely no reporting of this anywhere except the hilariously anti-NATO Centre for Research on Globalization which I’m not even going to bother linking to. All of NATO’s actions, according to Venezuela, were “meant to prevent the Libyan government from protecting its sovereignty”. …Against its own people. I haven’t signed onto R2P in blood or anything, but I do believe that once you have to protect your sovereignty against your own citizens, something has gone horribly awry, especially when that protection involves lethal force and promise to hunt everyone down like rats.

The real crux of his argument about Libya is that the reason for the intervention was to recolonize Libya and take over its wealth. This stands out as insanely stupid on our part if that really was the plan. First of all, say we actually had invaded Iraq for its oil back in 2003. We have seen that it ends pretty poorly for everyone involved, so why would we attempt it a second time in Libya? Second, up until Gaddafi’s forces started marching their way east, Libya was back in the fold of the international community and especially well-loved by its neighbors to the south for its generosity. The West was getting Libyan oil just fine, until we sanctioned it. Logic doesn’t seem to apply during the speechwriting process in Caracas. All of this added up to the obvious conclusion that Syria is next on the West’s Regime Change Tour 2011. Luckily for Al-Bashar though, he has the full weight of Venezuela behind him.

The next part of his speech turn to Horn of Africa, which is, you know, a legitimate concern, being the most widespread famine in decades in the region. Unfortunately, this too turned into a case of West-bashing. Citing the ever reliable source Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) saying at the start of the Libyan intervention that the excursion would cost the US $500M in its first week Mr. Moros insisted that the amount spent in the first three weeks to massacre the Libyan people could have been used to prevent the deaths of dozens of hundreds of thousands in Horn of Africa. Again, I’m almost willing to give him a pass on what seems like a legitimate concern. He then called it part of a Malthusian policy to lower the world population as a conspiracy to raise revenue for capitalists. And we’re back on track with crazy.

The rest of his speech was devoted to railing against the United Nations system as a whole, including, but not limited to, the Secretary-General, the P-5 members of the Security Council, the Security Council itself, the Charter, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, and I’m pretty sure he spoke out against the cafeteria at one point. Okay, not really on the last one, but I wouldn’t have been surprised by this point.

So after all of that, where does the Gaga analogy come in? Look at it this way. The UN General Assembly is a huge event, where the world comes together to talk about the issues it faces and celebrate its achievements and challenges ahead for the next year. And every year, there are certain countries that people look forward to hearing from, knowing that it may well top the spectacle of the previous year, and that’s really what they pay attention for. So too it is with the MTV Video Music Awards and basically every awards show in the industry.  It certainly was not for the tension of the “Best New Artist” that 12.4 million people tuned into the VMAs this year. No, the VMAs have become a showcase for the outrageous, and nobody represents that better than Lady Gaga. She’s the main event and has been for the last few years. Everyone wonders just what she’ll do and say on stage at her next appearance. It’s a pretty easy line to draw between her and Venezuela at this point, especially now that Qaddafi is out of power.

So I’ll rank this year’s performance as a “Bubble Dress” on the Gaga Crazy scale, far below the Meat Dress, but still more out there than what many others are doing at the same time. This year was no “The Devil Has Been Here”, but really, what is? And they say showmanship is dead.

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