Archive for March, 2012

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?

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March 23, 2012

Who Are We?: The US, Race, and the Human Rights Agenda

The nineteenth session of the United Nations Human Rights Council is taking place in Geneva this month. The United States is currently a member of the UNHRC, after much bemoaning of how it would be yet another playground of dictators and rights abusers. Joining up was the right choice; it’s hard to influence change on the outside looking in. Since the US first won a seat on the Council, much substantive work has been done on how to better improve the living conditions of peoples around the world, living in unimaginable conditions, facing the threat of death or worse each and every day.

And yet, as representatives of these Member States meet halfway around the world, I find myself compelled to ponder on the place that the United States holds in the human rights community. If you were to ask any averge American, we are clearly the apex, the zenith. We see ourselves on the world stage a lynchpin; as the US goes, so should the world go in terms of the norms that should rightly be championed. Freedom of speech. The right to worship as you please. The idea that your government has the responsibility to care about your well-being, rather than attempting to make your lot in life worse.

That’s how we like to see ourselves, and yet when the mirror is held in front of our faces, what do we see? Our metaphorical eyes prefer to dance around, averting our gaze from anything that mar our visage. How is it so easy to gloss over the imperfections and ignore the things that need to be fixed at home? President Obama spoke out on the Trayvon Martin killing this morning. His words hit home, and I felt the need to pen some of my own. For those who haven’t heard somehow, the story is one of a seventeen-year old, wearing a hooded sweatshirt as he walked through his neighborhood, who was shot in the chest and killed by a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain. The story has changed several times on the exact rundown of the situation and the legality of George Zimmerman’s actions. But Trayvon is still dead and Zimmerman is still outside of custody.

As I said on Twitter, my teenage years were spent in Flint, MI, also known as one of the most violent cities in the country. But I loved it, for the education it gave me, the people I met, and not once did I walk down the streets with fear in my heart. That lack of fear came from a few key factors: thanks to my six-foot frame, I don’t precisely scream ‘victim’; a youthful belief in one’s own invincibility; the lack of items of value in my possession to have taken; and, almost most important, the color of my skin. I looked like the majority of the people in the city, which is to say I am a black man. Any idea that I would be assaulted or harassed because of what I looked like was alien to me as I moved through the avenues of downtown Flint after dusk.

I walked through Flint without fear. The idea that I would be less safe today walking down the streets of a suburb in a hooded sweatshirt than I was in Flint horrifies me. It’s absolutely unfathomable that the status of race-relations in this country, the self-proclaimed greatest on Earth, is at the point where the murder of a young black man is simply shrugged off for days, weeks, until people finally took notice. It’s with no small amount of shame that I admit even I ignored the story until it gained momentum.

Among the rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, itself drafted largely by the United States, are the rights to life, liberty, and the security of person, regardless of race or color among other traits. Where were those rights when Trayvon Martin was shot and killed? Where are those rights now, as his assailant and killer still walks free? The US has come a long way in moving towards the society described in the UDHR since it was first adopted; in theory blacks are the equals of all other races in our society, a laughable claim in 1948. And yet in the very systems that would ensure that equality, there does still exist an imbalance among our citizens, shadows of the past that cannot be denied or hidden from or scoffed at.

My friends who know me well will probably be surprised to read this post. It’s not often I like to discuss race relations, as my relations with races are above par. But this situation rings differently. For one, it could have been me; I can’t count the number of times I’ve strolled through affluent neighborhoods in a hoodie and jeans, late at night, and my skin the same shade as ever. More importantly, it could be one of my future children. I intend to raise them well, whenever they come, and teach them right. But you can’t teach someone to look different. That’s one thing you can never shield someone from. And my heart breaks at the idea of having to explain to them why they would need to be shielded at all.

The United States speaks with conviction on the spread of human rights around the world, led at the United Nations by Ambassador Susan Rice, a black role model in her own right. As we move forward, our human rights agenda must continue to be as forceful as it has been in recent years. The vigor with which we pursue equality and justice for human beings around the world cannot abate. But we, as a country and as a people, need to take pause and make sure that the lessons we seek to impart on the world are not falling on deaf ears at home. We should be an example of our own goals for the world, free from qualifications, and free from excuses.

March 14, 2012

Mirror, Mirror: The UNSC as a Reflection of Syria

It’s been over a year since protesters in Syria began to march for reforms in Bashar al-Assad’s government. As the situation continues to escalate, the UN Security Council continues to work towards a solution to the problem, preferably one that doesn’t involve further bloodshed and death. Despite the pessimism that has pervaded work on Syria, the need for a political solution is still apparent, as the current phase of military struggle has yet to produce solutions for either side. The real problem comes in determining how to shift from the level of armed conflict we see at present to a political attempt at an accord between the two sides, a problem reflected in the UNSC’s members proxy insistence “I’ll stop shooting when you will”.

The wariness of the government and the increasingly armed opposition is proving to be a major hurdle to diplomacy at all levels of the United Nations and beyond. In the Security Council’s chambers, the United States and France are working in tandem with Morocco at another attempt to pass a draft resolution on the situation, an internationally binding call for peace. The draft, which hasn’t even come close to being put in blue, can be found at UN Report. While comparable to the previous efforts to pass a resolution, the current document differs in how it reflects the calls that were in the Press Statement of the Council, issued on March 1st, and its concern the need for humanitarian aid to be able to move freely within the most affected areas. Unfortunately, while it required the unanimity of the Council, the press statement falls even below a Presidential Statement in terms of enforcement, leaving the current draft the sole hope for an enforceable call to the table for the parties and push for NGOs and other aid workers to deliver much-needed supplies into Homs and other areas. Such an effort would coincide with the calls of Valerie Amos, the Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Assistance, who in concluding her visit to Homs, plaintively wondered where the citizens of the Baba Amr neighborhood, heavily targeted by shells, have relocated.

The main sticking point in the resolutions’ passage, however, can be found in Operative Clause 4, which is the subject of Russian and Chinese ire:

OP4    Calls upon the armed elements of the Syrian opposition to refrain from all violence immediately upon implementation of paragraph 3 of this resolution;

As paragraph 3 is the clause dealing with the implementation by Damascus of the Arab League’s Plan of Action from November, Russia and China are skeptical of the West and Gulf States’ intentions in the proposed language. Any allowance for the Free Syrian Army to continue attacks on government forces with impunity is a sure step to regime change in the eyes of Moscow and Beijing. Likewise, the Western members of the P-5 smell stalling and a desire to continue selling arms to Syria in Russia’s concerns. A high-level meeting of the Security Council on Monday highlighted these differences, while offering small morsels for a united stance by the full Council.

The mirror image that can be seen between the US, UK, France and the Arab State’s clash with Russia and China and the Syrian opposition’s distrust of Assad is hampering any chance of actual dialogue moving forward. This isn’t to say that concerns of potentially negotiating in bad faith are entirely unwarranted or validated on either side. The opposition has seen time and again promises of reform from the Assad regime coupled with increased attacks and shelling on civilian populations. Meanwhile Russia and China are hesitant to encourage political turnover that could later come back to haunt them, though I give less credence to the “Libya prevented Syria” theory than many do.

Outside of Turtle Bay, the Joint UN-Arab League envoy, former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, is facing similar problems in gaining the trust of the opposition and government. This morning, Annan stated that a Syrian response to his plan for mediated talks with the opposition had only prompted “more questions”, a highly diplomatic way of implying that Damascus was stalling for time. Meanwhile, the opposition finds itself splintering further still, with two top members resigning in recent days. For Annan, the task of pushing forward with mediation between not two Parties, but at least five, is a challenge in and of itself. Media reports that he ended his visit to Syria “empty-handed”, however, belie the time that seasoned observers knew would be needed in pushing for a deal. Annan is scheduled to brief the Security Council on his efforts thus far via video conference on Friday morning.

Despite disheartening setbacks, there are some signs for cautious optimism in gaining Russian acquiescence on a text in the Council. This weekend, the Russian Federation met with the League of Arab States to discuss Syria, producing Five Points of agreement on how to move forward in ending the conflict. The points, while short on detail, do offer the clearest sign yet that Russia may eventually come around to supporting the UN’s diplomatic push fully:

1. Cessation of violence from all sides.

2. An impartial monitoring mechanism.

3. No external interference.

4. Unhindered access of humanitarian aid to all Syrians.

5. Firm support for Kofi Annan’s mission to launch a political dialogue between the government and all opposition groups in accordance with the mandate contained in the terms of reference approved by the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the League of Arab States

So the question remains: how do you push for two sides riddled with mistrust to lay down their arms? The answer: the same way you do in every civil conflict, through a combination of cajoling, threats, promises, and bribes by the supporters of the opposing sides. Unfortunately for the Russian and Chinese position, it’s unlikely that the Free Syrian Army will be ending their strikes against the government prior to the withdrawal of tanks and armed forces from cities and towns. Syria giving in to this request, however, places the onus on the FSA to hold up their end of the bargain, or give Syria renewed diplomatic strength to restart their assault. A Russian threat to withhold arms sales and withdraw trainers for advanced systems without compliance to a Security Council resolution, along with a promise to redouble the Syrian line of credit in the event of a violation of a ceasefire by the FSA, would move the chance of talks along swiftly.

Similarly, the Gulf States, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, can take concrete steps towards a solution by toning down their rhetoric for the time being, including the calls for military intervention and their actual continuing supply of arms to the FSA. These actions are prolonging the conflict, providing credence to Assad’s embattled rhetoric, and hindering the efforts of the UN to actually bring a peaceful solution to bear. If Qatar and the Saudis wish to invade Syria as badly as they seem to want to at times, I suggest they do so and unite world opinion finally, in a state to state conflict that the UNSC was designed to quash. In any case, cooler heads in Riyadh and Doha would be appreciated. By the same token, the Syrian National Council, currently the most organized opposition group, though barely, should revoke its decision to form a ‘Military Bureau’ to coordinate with the Free Syrian Army. Now is not the time to show enhanced unity of cause by escalating the military conflict.

I would also at this point consider amending language to the US draft from its current request for Annan to work with the Syrian government, other parties in Syria, and member-states, to upgrade Annan’s mandate from being provided by the General Assembly and the Arab League to the Security Council and Arab League. While this may not affect Annan’s mission operationally, it would add increased weight to his attempts to foster peace, including the backing of the most powerful body in the UN system. Further pressure could be placed by demanding that these Parties cooperate fully with Annan, but I have my doubts this suggestion would be heeded.

Finally, I would note that this draft resolution is a good, workable framework for negotiating with Russia and China over an actual call for a ceasefire. The language as proposed for Operative Clause 4 surprised me in how directly it supported the oppositions’ status as the aggrieved over the government, enough for me to presume that the clause was there as a negotiating start point. Instead, Secretary Clinton on Monday was unabashed in the need for the government to stop shooting first. The consternation from Russia was palpable. The United States, though correct in its principles, should yield to the politics necessary to pass this political document for a political solution. As the Russian-Arab Five Points indicate, there are points of commonality in the positions of the fifteen Council members. Rather than continue to insist that the exact wording of the resolution remain intact, the West needs to focus on the momentum that will come from finally gaining a statement from the Security Council on Syria and lay down their own rhetorical arms. Passage of a resolution at the Security Council level, in theory, could serve as a catalyst for their mirror images to do the same. Continuing to delay over the insistence that the other side blink first is a recipe for continued strife and increased carnage.

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.

March 7, 2012

Can the United Nations Harness #KONY2012’s Energy?

If you follow a single human rights, civilian protection, or international development advocate on Facebook or Twitter by now, you’ve been awash in the blitz that is Invisible Children’s latest piece. The hashtags #stopkony and #kony2012 have taken over the trending topics in the United States, as thousands of college students have their eyes opened to the atrocities performed in the Great Lakes region by the Lord’s Resistance Army.

As is to be expected when a spotlight is shined on an area many have already been focused on, there has been some major pushback on the simplified narrative Invisible Children provides, namely that not a single person actually affected by the Lord’s Resistance Army was interviewed for the piece, nor are actual means of producing a solution included in the film. As Laura Seay so eloquently put it on Twitter today, “the awareness of American college students is NOT a necessary condition for conflict resolution in Africa.” Longer, and excellent in substance, critiques have been penned by Dan Solomon at Securing Rights and Mark Kernsten at Justice in Conflict.

All of their judgments are extremely on point when examining the dissatisfaction that comes with the fact that the sole ask of the viewers of the video is to launch a major flyer posting effort to spread even more awareness. But you’d be hard pressed to deny the marketing strategy put in place by Invisible Children is impressive in its scope and speed. The name “Joseph Kony” is soon to become much more prevalent on many people’s lips. The question that many have, however, is “So what?” How does it matter that Kony is now as infamous among people who haven’t been paying attention this whole time as among people who have? And how does IC’s claim that “The problem is that 99% of the world doesn’t know who he is” solve the actual problems of the civilians that the LRA terrorizes? The answer to that depends on how much you believe that awareness can fully transition into action.

The power of narrative in driving solutions to conflicts is unavoidable, as is the notability of its absence. For years, the government of Sri Lanka fought against the freedom fighters cum terrorist group known as the Tamil Tigers. The conflict came to a head in 2008, with the Sri Lankan government launching an all-out offensive against the Tigers, resulting in what a UN panel of experts has since called war crimes perpetrated by both sides. The United Nations and the world as a whole were silent at the time, partially for domestic concerns, partially because of the power that the global war on terrorism narrative still possessed, and partly due to uncertainty on the nature of the conflict. In the end, there was no inspiring video to draw attention to the issue, no major push for its cease. Most people didn’t hear of the conflict until it ended, and even now, many couldn’t tell you that human rights abuses occurred at all off the coast of India.

The United Nations is belatedly attempting to bring about some form of justice on the Sri Lankan government. A small uproar resulted in the removal of Sri Lankan Major General Shavendra Silva, himself accused of allowing war crimes to be committed by soldiers under his command, from an advisory panel on reimbursement of peacekeeping contributing countries. The United States has also drafted a resolution to put before the Human Rights Council, calling out the lack of progress the government of Sri Lanka has made in holding human rights abusers accountable. All of this is post-facto guilt soothing, however. The international community didn’t move swiftly, or at all, to take any measure of punitive action against Sri Lanka at the time.

The silence surrounding Sri Lanka as it unfolded made it extremely difficult to muster public outrage or pressure on domestic governments to take action against atrocities as they occur. This in turn allows for a “complete disinterest from the UN at key moments”, as Vanessa Parra put it. In his post at The Atlantic on inconsistency in intervention, Joshua Foust implies that the ability for some crises to better mobilize public relations blitzes over others shouldn’t be the basis for policy-development. While this is true, these blitzes do at least bring the issue in question to the forefront of collective consciousness, where actions may be taken to help solutions develop, and as Solomon described provides a base for communities to organize around.

So how can these communities organize in a way that actually brings about positive change? I, for one, would like to see more engagement between these groups and the United Nations. The United Nations as an overarching institution, mostly via the Secretariat and the Secretary-General, is often ahead of its Member States when it comes to human rights protection and atrocities prevention. As just one example, see the Secretary-General’s impassioned defense of the rights of the LGBT community at the current session of the UN Human Rights Council. Compare and contrast his speech with the unwillingness of the Organization of the Islamic Conference to recognize the importance of the issue, staging a walkout of the debate.

In attempting to promote rights, the United Nations walks a careful balance between advocating positions counter to those of a minority of its dues-paying members and earning enough consternation from those states that it affects the UN’s programmatic work through withholding of funding or other withdrawals from participation. So the question becomes how does the UN as an institution, in the face of potential disagreement from Member-States, harness the civilian energy that is present in some cases? And to what extent is this energy transferable between high-profile and low-profile issues? I’m an expert on neither civilian protection nor advocacy organization, but I have to find that the United Nations would better serve if it found methods to achieve these aims. The greatest effort I’ve seen thus far is the partnership between the UN and the campaigns of the UN Foundation*, though a greater programmatic component to the bond between the two would be encouraged, along with a greater sense of agency by the United Nations itself in pushing the civilian/IGO link.

A method for joining advocacy and action that is underutilized, in my opinion, is the ability of non-governmental organizations to gain consultative membership in the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Thousands of NGOs currently take part in ECOSOC’s Plenary sessions to advise resolutions as they develop, but the relationship should be more of a two-way street. Rather than merely advocating for their unique issues, the NGO members of ECOSOC should be constantly receiving, and disseminating to their own members, news from the Secretariat about how the UN is making a difference in their particular issue of note, and how help can be provided. The NGOs can then turn their members to bear on leveraging that information in lobbying domestic governments and pressing for escalation to the General Assembly and Security Council.

As it specifically relates to the Great Lakes region, the potentiality of the UN bandwagoning on the viral success of the Invisible Children project is apparent. Outreach to college campuses on how to actually provide humanitarian relief and urge the US government to do more in cooperation with the missions on the ground in the region should be ramped up immediately, by the UN’s Office of Public Affairs, the UN Foundation, and other NGOs that work directly with United Nations programmatic components. To me, the whole #Kony2012 imbroglio boils down to that I can’t fault excited college students for wanting to spread awareness of issues that don’t dominate headlines. What I can fault is organizations doing it in a heavy-handed manner with no real recourse for the peoples affected. Rather than complaining about the ineffectiveness of the campaign, we should be pushing for ways to bridge the gap between intentions and outcomes.

The United Nations could serve as a mechanism for the passion of the young advocates out there that clearly exists to find ways to translate that enthusiasm into action. The UN acts as a force multiplier when it comes to the use of force, as the Obama Administration would do well to remember when it comes to the Great Lakes, so why not when it comes to channeling advocacy and passion that clearly is there to be tapped? Without a balance of the two, advocacy and action, we find ourselves with silent atrocities such as in Sri Lanka, or instances in the DRC where suddenly everyone is aware of a problem with no viable method of affecting the situation.

(*Full disclosure: I served briefly as an intern with the United Nations Foundation, and still have many friends there.)

March 1, 2012

Tea and Kofi: The Next Month for Syria and the UN

One of the most under appreciated aspects of the UN Security Council is the rotating Presidency of the Council. Under the Provisional Rules, the President of the Security Council serves for a month, before the member that follows under the English alphabet takes over. Running the Council means you get to set the Provisional Agenda for the month, and lay out the course of Council debate for the next four weeks. This especially matters when it comes to handling ongoing crises, as different states take different approaches to the matters before the UNSC.

As of tomorrow morning, Togo hands over the gavel to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. At the end of March, the UK will pass the Presidency to the United States of America. The US and UK always serve back to back, barring the presence of the United Republic of Tanzania on the Council, but I believe the next two months will show a marked change in the presence of the situation in Syria at the horseshoe table. As if to signify its commitment to taking on Damascus head-on, the United Kingdom already has a draft Presidential Statement on deck:

The members of the Security Council express their deep disappointment that Ms. Valerie Amos, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, was not granted authorization to visit Syria by the Syrian Government in a timely manner, despite repeated requests and intense diplomatic contacts aimed at securing Syrian approval.  The members of the Security Council call upon the Syrian authorities to grant the coordinator immediate and unhindered access.

The members of the Security Council deplore the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation, in particular the growing number of affected civilians, the lack of safe access to adequate medical services, and food shortages, particularly in areas affected by fighting and violence such as Homs, Hama, Deraa, Idlib.

The members of the Security Council call upon the Syrian authorities to allow immediate, full and unimpeded access of humanitarian personnel  to all populations in need of assistance, in accordance with international law and guiding principles of humanitarian assistance, and call upon the Syrian government to cooperate fully with the United Nations and relevant humanitarian organizations to facilitate the provision of humanitarian assistance and allow evacuation of the wounded from affected areas.

Presidential Statements don’t have the weight of international law behind them like resolutions do. But due to the fact that they require unanimity to be issued,  they are seen as a firm declaration of the Security Council’s intent to see a situation resolved. This specific text focuses on the need to deploy aid to the most areas hardest hit by Assad’s shelling campaign, which I find to be unlikely to make much of a difference, as its implementation would go against the siege strategy Damascus is employing. Despite this, odds of the draft passing are actually quite high, as China has already stated that Beijing is in favor, in principle, of humanitarian aid to be delivered to Syria, leaving Russia in the position of joining with the rest of the international community, or be alone against delivering medicine to civilians.

Also, London’s taking over at the Security Council makes it more likely that Syria will find a permanent place on the Agenda. As it stands, the situation in Syria has been debated under “The Situation in the Middle East” on the Council’s agenda, a catch-all that includes the Israel-Palestine crisis. Placing “The Situation in Syria” on the Council elevates the issue as being clearly one that negatively affects international peace and security, as why would it be discussed by the Security Council if it didn’t? What’s more, this move can’t be vetoed by Russia and China, as it would be a procedural vote, and nine votes clearly exist for the motion to pass.

As the UK’s draft is set to be tabled, the United States and France are working on a draft resolution to the same effect. I say “working” because the text is still only being circulated to “like-minded countries” for now. I’ve yet to see a copy of the full text, but it looks like al-Arabiya has, even if they aren’t publishing it in its entirety. I’m not sold on the idea of a purely “humanitarian” resolution doing much or going very far in deliberations, as I’ve noted before. The United Nations Security Council is a political body by nature. Even when it resorts to authorizing force under Chapter VII, as Clausewitz said, what is war but an extension of politics? It looks like several Western diplomats agree with me, despite their best efforts:

Russia, U.N. diplomats said, has indicated that it would support a resolution that focuses exclusively on the humanitarian crisis without any mention of the political situation. Arab and Western diplomats, however, say that such a resolution would be unacceptable to them.

While the Brits take over in the Security Council, the General Assembly has pledged to work together with the Arab League to find a negotiated solution to the crisis. Having been tasked to appoint a Special Envoy for the region, much as I predicted, Secretaries-General Ban Ki-Moon of the UN and Nabil al-Araby of the Arab League have drafted the biggest name they could: Kofi Annan. While some may be doubtful of his appointment, the luster that comes from a former head of the United Nations can’t be denied.

Annan visited UN Headquarters today to discuss his new role, his arrival coinciding with UN Under Secretary-General of Humanitarian Affairs Valarie Amos being denied access into Syria. USG Amos’ inability to enter Syria’s border is especially concerning as it makes uncertain the future of Annan’s mission before it even begins. While in the past, Annan has been able to work with President Assad, it’s unsure if the relationship they developed will be able to become exploited to come to a political solution. His mandate, as given by al-Araby and Ban, is a broad one as it pertains to actively engaging all parties in Syria, effectively hoping to channel Annan’s clout with the regime and the ability to interact with the opposition sans bias. As it stands, if a political solution exists, it is much more likely to be brokered by Annan than by Moscow or Beijing.

As we approach the one-year anniversary of protests in Syria, it’s apparent that neither side is set to back down easily, particularly not now that the opposition finds itself awash in arms from neighboring states. At the Security Council this morning, the Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe upped the official total death toll in Syria to 7,500, highlighting the upswing in refugees and internally displaced people, now estimated at 25,000 and 100,000 respectively.

The United Nations, despite calls of ineffectiveness in handling the Syrian crisis, is still knee-deep in attempting to ensure that the violence against civilians comes to a halt, particularly at the Human Rights Council’s 19th Session and through the on the ground work of the UN High Commission for Refugees. In this light, between the United Kingdom running the Security Council for the month of March and Kofi Annan launching his quest for a solution, the next thirty days are sure to be a diplomatic whirlwind placing renewed pressure on Syria, with the United Nations at its center.