Archive for April, 2012

April 16, 2012

On Walter Russell Mead’s Unfamiliarity with the United Nations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements
April 14, 2012

Whirlwind Diplomacy: 48 Hours at the UN Security Council

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

Guinea-Bissau

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

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

Sudan/South Sudan

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

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

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

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

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

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

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

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

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

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

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

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

Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 11, 2012

Keep Your Enemies Close: Syria and the UN General Assembly

Last night, I came across an op-ed piece in the Washington Times, provocatively titled “Time to Suspend Syria from the UN”. My glee at finding a new source of mockery turned to dismay as I noted that the article was written by my friend Ryan Kaminski, especially as I know Ryan is a true believer in the United Nations. I talked to Ryan afterwards, and he stood by the content. And so, with that in mind, I find myself forced to take him to task over his concept:

Specifically, the United States as well as like-minded delegations in the West and Middle East should consider calling for Syria’s suspension from the U.N.’s most democratic and representative organ, the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA), where all 193 U.N. member states can vote. Such an act would entail zero material costs, avoid veto authority and would be a critical step toward alleviating the humanitarian nightmare unfolding in Syria.

In particular, Syria’s suspension would act to further isolate its leadership, increase the probability of high-level Syrian defections both at the U.N. and elsewhere, and would likely bolster the confidence of the country’s beleaguered internal opposition forces. Most importantly, Syria’s suspension would unambiguously symbolize the international community’s collective disgust with the actions of Syria’s ruling government, while providing a new form of leverage to compel Syria’s government to change course.

Before we address the broader issues, there are quite a few technical problems with his proposal. As Kaminski notes later in the article, the Credentials Committee reviews the credentials of the various Member States’ delegations as presented to the Secretary-General. For the 66th Session of the GA, the nine members of this committee are: China, Costa Rica, Egypt, Italy, Maldives, Panama, Russian Federation, Senegal and the United States. As he noted, 7 of them voted in favor of the condemnation of the Syrian Arab Republic for their human rights abuses. But he then assumes that those would likewise vote to suspend the credentials of the Syrian delegation, as though it would not be a protracted battle, with enormous implications, which we will come back to shortly.

He cites the precedent of South Africa as clearing a path for such an action. However, the South African suspension was taken after decades of oppression under apartheid. It could be argued that with the active killing taking place in Syria that this situation trumps that of South Africa, but the swift removal of a state from taking part in any of the discussions under the purview of the General Assembly should be reserved for cases of systemic oppression as taken by apartheid Pretoria.

Kaminski also states that the General Assembly is within its right to suspend Syria from its works, due as well to the South Africa precedent, including a way to get around the veto of the Security Council of any proposal for a formal suspension, as laid out in the UN Charter. He fails to recall that in the South African case, the veto was cast by France, the United Kingdom and United States on such a motion, a fact which will be brought up as evidence of hypocrisy on the part of the West. The President of the General Assembly at the time then offered a ruling that South Africa should be banned from taking part in the Assembly, which was upheld by a vote of 91 votes to 22, with 19 abstentions. The legality of such a move would quickly come under question, and likely lead to increased speculation on the nature of the ruling, as the Presidency of the General Assembly is currently held by a Qatari. It would place the Secretariat in an awkward position if the Syrian delegation challenges such a ruling and attempts to maintain their seat on the GA floor.

Also, there exists a problem of timing. The Credentials Committee reviews the credentials of delegations, according the General Assembly’s Rules of Procedure, no later than a week prior to the convening of a session. The difficulty with Kaminski’s proposal here lies in the fact that the current session has already convened. In the past, General Assembly delegates didn’t reside in New York year round, and so the convening of meetings after the September General Assembly was a rarity, and highlighted the unusual nature of the Security Council’s readiness to meet at a moment’s notice. Now, the 66th Session won’t be gaveled out of until the next session is set to begin, leaving the delegation from Syria seated right where they are.

Now, an Emergency Session could be convened under the Uniting for Peace resolution, which would allow for a new Credentialing Committee to be selected, and the Syrian credentials to be placed under review. However, I have listed previously the difficulties I see in calling such a session, and my analysis stands in my opinion. And let us think for a moment what would happen should an Emergency Meeting of the Credentialing Committee be called forward to consider the Syrian’s credentials post-haste. If you think the UN has an image problem now, imagine the laughter on conservative radio and television. “The UN convenes emergency session to determine whether Syria allowed to speak at meetings” practically reads like a headline of The Onion.

Even if such a session were to be called to order, the rules of the General Assembly only state that the Credentialing Committee is to determine whether to accept the legitimacy of the credentials as presented to the Secretary-General by a Head of State or Foreign Minister of the given country. For the credentials to be rejected, the Committee would have to rule that the international community no longer recognizes the rule of Bashar Al-Assad in a de jure sense. While many states have called for Assad to step down, none have ruled that his regime no longer controls Syria. To do so would require a replacement governing body, a role few believe the Syrian National Council or any of the other competing opposition groups are ready to play.

Playing off the points against the likelihood for utilizing the Uniting for Peace resolution, I also believe Kaminski is rather cavalier with his belief that the forces the United States would be marshalling would then be easily constrained into maintaining the status quo with all other states, preventing a rush of politically-based removal campaigns. The reason the United States drifted away from utilizing the General Assembly as a tool of policy-shaping in the first place is that it came to find the newer states of Africa and Asia too uncontrollable for their tastes, instead taking refuge in the Security Council for matters of peace and security, content with its veto there. While the US may be able to achieve victory here, and was able to beat back calls for Israel’s suspension in the 1980s, I don’t believe that’s a risk that the Obama Administration should take, as the victory may well end up a Pyrrhic one.

Aside from the more technical points, I think that Kaminski also overestimates the effect a suspension from the General Assembly would have. A great deal would come down to how the vote is split. I can’t see Russia and China, two states whose sway in the Security Council have prevent harsher measures from being taken, looking favorably upon such a push in the General Assembly, and may well come out more firmly resolved against pressing for Assad’s departure. Likewise, states that have been fine with condemning the human rights abuses of Syria may be slightly more hesitant to remove a fellow member from the Assembly.

Likewise, will the removal of Bashar Ja’afari from the General Assembly Hall truly convince him to leave the regime? As Colum Lynch pointed out, the diplomatic corps has been far more loyal to Assad than Gaddafi’s during Libya, likely due to lessons learned from that uprising such as having diplomats send their families home to Syria, within the regime’s reach. And a suspension from the General Assembly’s work would mean that a Mission to the UN would still be maintained, and the right to speak still accorded within the Security Council, as well as interaction with the Secretariat. Hardly the clarion call for defectors.

He finally makes the claim that there exists greater flexibility on the issue of seating, as evidenced by Libya’s diplomatic corps’ about face:

Additionally, in February 2011, Libya’s deputy U.N. ambassador in New York, Ibrahim Dabbashi, was somehow able to request an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council – a right reserved for U.N. member state delegations – on the same day he announced that he would represent the Libyan people rather than Moammar Gadhafi. Both cases suggest that under exceptional circumstances, there may be more maneuverability in this area than usually acknowledged.

Unfortunately, the analogy doesn’t quite hold up. While Dabbashi had forsworn the orders sent from Tripoli, he was still sworn in as the recognized Permanent Representative of Libya. Once Dabbashi’s disconnect from Qaddafi was clear, the Libyan government quickly withdrew Dabbashi and appointed a new Permanent Representative. Likewise, soon thereafter, the international community at the time was prepared to recognize a new government, in the form of the National Transitional Council, which was seated as the new Libyan government at the start of the current General Assembly session.

All told, I empathize with Kaminski’s desire to find new tools to leverage against Syria. I myself have called for removing of Syria from international bodies, such as its seat on a human rights committee within UNESCO. However, as you may recall, even that small step failed to gain traction. In the face of continuing Syrian repression against its citizens, a feeling of helplessness is understandable. However, removal of Syria from the General Assembly isn’t the path forward to ending the bloodshed. For now, it’s better to keep your enemies close; leaving Syria sitting in Turtle Bay outweighs the satisfaction that would come with booting them out.

April 5, 2012

The Imagined Paralysis of the Security Council

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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