From Horseshoe Table to Cage Match: Rice v. Churkin in a diplomatic battle royale

It’s been a tough year on the Security Council. I mean that without a trace of irony. There have been several major decisions that have made their way to the Horseshoe Table, and the Council has been in almost constant session year-round it would seem. The last several weeks in particular have been fascinating for UN watchers as the US and Russian ambassadors have been going at each other with the gloves off. No holiday truce can be found between Susan Rice and Vitaly Churkin in Turtle Bay, not this year.

Things first started to heat up earlier this month, in a dispute over whether the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, would be allowed to brief the Council on human rights abuses in Syria at France’s request. Russia and China at first demurred from the proposal, before determining that if Pillay was going to brief under the topic “The Situation in the Middle East”, as this was official issue on the Agenda under which Syria was being discussed, that human rights concerns in Palestine would also have to be addressed:

An hour after Inner City Press first reported the proposal, Russian Ambssador Vitaly Churkin emerged to read a short Council statement. He explained that Pillay’s briefing Monday at 3 pm on “the Middle East” is understood to include Palestine as well as Syria.

Inner City Press asked Churkin if the briefing would be closed, and if Pillay would be questioned about Palestine. Churkin said he expected Pillay would hear what he was saying and that, yes, the briefing would be closed.

He said with a smile that at one point Russia proposed the briefing be open, but that those who had initially wanted it open then decided that it should be closed.

Russia and China eventually discarded their demand, but not before Russia nearly forced a procedural vote on the matter, a highly unusual move for allowing a UN official to brief the UNSC.

Things have come to a head in recent days. This week,  The New York Times released an article indicating that NATO’s claims of no civilian casualties as a result of its bombing campaign in Libya were exaggerated; rather than zero, the death toll as a result of NATO’s assault on Col Qaddafi may have cost the lives of between forty and seventy Libyans. Russia has been pounding NATO for overstepping the bounds of SC/1973 since the bombing campaign was launched, so this was quickly seized as an early Christmas present. At a press stakeout yesterday, Ambassador Churkin let the reporters present know that Russia felt a Council-mandated investigation was in order to determine the extent of damage wrought by NATO.

Ambassador Rice was having none of this:

U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, who stepped to the microphone after Churkin, said: “Oh, the bombast and bogus claims.”

“Is everyone sufficiently distracted from Syria now and the killing that is happening before our very eyes?” she said.

“I think it’s not an exaggeration to say that this is something of a cheap stunt to divert attention from other issues and to obscure the success of NATO and its partners — and indeed the Security Council — in protecting the people of Libya,” Rice said.

Harsh words? Maybe not on the streets surrounding UN Headquarters, but far sharper than you normally hear outside the Council’s chambers. That tension has simmered over into today, during discussion on a potential Presidential Statement on the League of Arab States’ deployment of monitors to Syria. Normally, such a statement, while requiring unanimity, would not have been difficult to produce. Instead, this afternoon Ambassador Churkin told the press that no statement would be coming. When asked about the dust-up yesterday, Churkin responded:

“We hear that the Obama administration wants to establish a dialogue with the international community in the United Nations, and in the Security Council. If that is to be the case, if this is the intention, really this Stanford dictionary of expletives must be replaced by something more Victorian, because certainly this is not the language in which we intend to discuss matters with our partners in the Security Council.”

Shots. Fired.

Vitaly Churkin: Grinch
Diplomatic? Not really. But impressive Photoshop skills

In retaliation for the frustrating lack of progress on Syria, Mark Kornblau, the Communications Director and head spokesman for the US Mission to the UN, used his previously underutilized Photoshop skills, or those of an intern, to produce an image of Ambassador Churkin cast as The Grinch. Mr. Kornblau then post the image to his personal Twitter account. While I personally found it amusing, I somehow doubt that the Russian Mission will agree.

While less than diplomatic on its forefront, I actually believe that the Security Council is, even in this context, performing one of its most vital functions: a pressure release. The Great Powers that make up the P-5 have this one place where they can all sit together as equals and discuss all matters of international peace and security. Without the Council, as David Bosco argues in his excellent book “Five to Rule Them All”, that ability to come together and air grievances, as is fitting on today as it is Festivus, the likelihood of direct Great Power conflict would have been and would be much higher.

From January 1 until today, the UNSC has struggled to bring together its fifteen members into some semblance of accord on matters of peace and security on even more and greater issues than normal. Tensions get especially tough when you factor in the P-5 and their veto power. But at least they’re talking to each other rather than slugging it out somewhere. So you can’t blame them for getting a little…punchy as the year winds down.

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