Archive for ‘Africa’

November 15, 2012

In Defense of Susan Rice

Your eyes do not deceive you; after months of radio silence, this blog is back at least for a short time. As you can see from the About page, there have been quite a few changes on the personal front that led to me going dark for a bit, namely that I’m now blogging full-time over at ThinkProgress. It’s a great job, but sometimes I have a U.N. rant in me that just needs to get out. This is one of those instances.

In the event that you’ve been living under a rock for the last two months, Amb. Susan Rice has been under near constant attack for going on the Sunday shows back on September 16th and laying out what the Administration knew at the time regarding the attack in Benghazi. With the added layer of her likely receiving the nod to become the next Secretary of State when Hillary Clinton steps down in the coming weeks, all eyes have been on her. As a public official, that’s more than fair; what’s not fair is to judge her based on anything other than her record of service.

The ur-example of doing so would be Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both of whom have seemed to exposed their own desire to pursue political points over actual facts when it comes to Benghazi. That the two of them have chosen Rice as their whipping boy on Benghazi is, as the President has said, unfair and in my personal opinion borderline cowardice. The United Nations is never a popular institution and to choose to go after its face is to try to exploit that weakness. Moreover, the facts at the time supported Rice’s statements, she was extremely careful in her wording, and those facts came straight from the intelligence community.

In response to the President’s full-throated defense, Sen. Graham snapped back, asking on Sean Hannity’s show last night:

Why did they pick her? If she had nothing to do with Benghazi. She is not in charge of conflict security. She works in the U.N. Why nobody from the State Department. I believe she’s a close political ally of the President. She went on national TV, four or five days after the attack, when there is no credible information that the video scenario was real and she either through incompetence or an intentional effort to mislead the American people, tried to spin a story that would help the President because if it was true that this was an al-Qaeda attack, long-time in the making, that killed our ambassador and three other brave Americans, so much for the story, we killed bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s on the run, being dismantled.

That nobody on the right seems to be able to draw the connection between Rice’s role in the launch of the Libya operation, at the United Nations of all places, and the Administration choosing her as the spokesperson in light of the attack upon Benghazi doesn’t speak well to their reasoning skills. Rice has proven herself time and again an eloquent speaker with an ease on camera and possessed a wealth of knowledge on Libya. Why not choose her?

Almost more discouraging is when slams against Rice shroud themselves with air of being actual inquiries into her record. Richard Grenell, briefly national security spokesman for Romney for President and former U.S. Mission to the U.N. spokesman under the Bush administration, has a piece out today where he runs through Susan Rice’s time at Turtle Bay and finds her lacking. The problem with his analysis is his glossing over of facts and nuances in favor of a demagogic desire to rip down Rice before she can ascend to Foggy Bottom.

Among the main contentions that Grenell has with Rice is that she built up to be far more effective at the U.N. than in actuality. His primary evidence for this claim? That the Administration has only passed a singular resolution on Iran since taking office in 2009, compared to the five in President Bush’s eight years:

Take the crucial issue of Iran.  Rice spent the last several years undermining and grumbling about the Bush administration’s increasingly tough measures but has only been able to pass one resolution of her own – compared with the Bush team’s five.

Rice’s one and only Iran resolution was almost 30 months ago.  And it passed with just 12 votes of support – the least support we have ever seen for a Security Council sanctions resolution on Iran.  In fact, Rice lost more support with her one resolution than the previous five Iran resolutions combined.  She may claim she has repaired relationships with other countries but the evidence shows she’s gotten less support than the team she ridicules.

Let’s dig into this slightly. On the surface, we can see that comparing the one resolution in the last four years to the five in the Bush years has an issue in differing time frames; eight years to four doesn’t quite line up for a straight comparison. In addition, we have to examine the contents of the resolutions. Those passed by the Bush Administration were certainly laudable in the support they gained, but were incremental scale-ups in terms of actions taken. Each one built off of the previous, ratcheting up the penalties for first the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, then the Iranian government writ large. By the time the Obama administration took office, the international community, namely Russia and China in this instance, had been led almost as far as they were willing to go in terms of Iran. What Resolution 1929 managed to achieve was probably as far as the Security Council will be able to punish Iran, barring the use of sweeping trade embargoes of the sort that devastated Iraq in the late nineties or a new escalation by Iran in the face of sanctions currently in place.

Now, turning to Grenell’s complaint about the number of votes that Resolution 1929 received  we can also see that his cries of failure don’t quite carry water. The most important thing to note in terms of 1929’s support is that it received yes votes from all five Permanent Members of the Security Council. Not abstentions, with their tacit level of support demonstrated by deigning passage. Solid yes votes, affirming the contents, including an arms embargo of the sort that Russia and China have typically shied from, without any trepidation. The no votes, and singular abstention, that Grenell notes have little to do with the effectiveness of Rice’s lobbying and everything to do with the make-up of the Security Council in 2010.

Lebanon voted against the resolution, an unsurprising turn of events considering the history between it and Iran. Likewise unsurprising is the opposition to the resolution from Brazil and Turkey. During 2010, Brazil and Turkey were trying to capitalize on their position as “rising Powers” to make a more solid mark on the international security sphere. In seeking to be seen as distinct from Western powers, the two states sought a separate peace with Iran, attempting to develop a solution that all-sides could agree with. The U.S. reacted coolly to this freelancing, gaining the reaction that is evident in the voting records. Unless Grenell supported the Turko-Brazilian initiative over the strong sanctions won by Rice, I’m uncertain what he expected the outcome to be.

Grenell also faults Rice for the failure to secure a resolution on Syria for months on end:

UN members, not surprisingly, prefer a weak opponent.  Rice is therefore popular with her colleagues.  It may explain why she ignored Syria’s growing problems for months.

Speaking out and challenging the status quo is seldom cheered at the UN.  Her slow and timid response left the United States at the mercy of Russia and China, who ultimately vetoed a watered down resolution an unprecedented three times.

Among the things left unstated by Grenell is that the Russians and Chinese vetoed three resolutions not because of Susan Rice’s weakness, but because they believed that it was in their best interest to do so, the same reason why the Bush Administration vetoed so many watered-down resolutions on Israel. Further, unless he believes that Rice was the designer of Syrian policy across the Federal government, it’s hard to see how he finds her at fault her. It’s also surprising that he seems to be lauding the Chinese and Russian models of decisive action at the U.N., which in most cases amounts to be obstructionist in nature, with few positive suggestions to bring to the table.

The rest of Grenell’s argument is equally as vacuous, picking as his evidence articles where he himself is cited or heavily quoted. Among those instances of utter failure that he lists: not being present for Benjamin Netanyahu’s “Red Line” speech at the General Assembly this year and having her deputy attend several meetings where Israel was the subject. More specious, he calls out Rice for not speaking out against Libya’s election to the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2010. Given that at the time Qadhafi was seen as a rehabilitated leader who was attempting to make his way back into the international community, and that Susan Rice led the charge to have Libya removed the following year, Grenell falls flat.

This isn’t to suggest that Ambassador Rice is far and away the most qualified candidate to take over the 7th floor office at State. There are plenty of reasons to be unsupportive of her potential candidacy, including her well-documented sharp tongue and commanding personality. But those have to do with her actual qualifications to be Secretary of State, unbiased by partisanship and slander. If the President does choose to nominate Rice, I will be somewhat disappointed. But only because it means she won’t be roaming the halls of Turtle Bay as frequently.

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September 14, 2012

In a Crazy Week, Whither the Security Council?

After a relatively staid August, the last week has been absolutely exhausting in the amount of foreign policy news that has broken. Not a single day has gone by without some major turn of event happening, in literally every corner of the globe. Peace has been breached in several instances and death counts reported in several of the crises that have sprung up.

Throughout all of this, what has the United Nations Security Council been doing? The Council is, after all, supposed to be the arbiter of the use of force and the protector of international peace and security. So why, in a week of such turmoil, has the Council’s formal agenda for the week’s meetings been so sparse?

The answer is in part that because of the nature of the conflicts at hand the Security Council has no space in which to be an effective, or necessary, player. In other instances, the Council has been seemingly absent, but only because it has literally done all it can short of authorizing force in many of the situations where it has played a role. I’ll run through several of this week’s flare-ups and clarify just why the U.N. has, or hasn’t, taken the actions that it has.

Somalia

On Monday, Somalia finally managed to lurch out of its transitional phase, with the selection of Hassan Sheikh as President by the newly seated Parliament. The very next day, the al-Shabaab militant group labeled the vote as fraudulent and a “ploy by the West”. Two days into his term in office, President Sheikh was the target of an assassination attempt:

Two of the suicide bombers struck, one near the gate and one at the back of the Jazeera Hotel near the airport as the president was giving a briefing for the news media with the visiting Kenyan foreign minister, Samson K. Ongeri.

Another attacker was shot as he tried to scale the walls of the compound, according to a statement from the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia.

The attack did not interrupt the news conference and the president continued his speech. “This is the Mogadishu we are trying to change,” he said.

Of the many crises that have sprung up in the past few days, none are closer to the Council than Somalia. Indeed, the Security Council has, to put it mildly, been intimately involved with the effort to restore Somalia following its collapse in 1992. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) that Mr. Sheikh’s government is replacing had the strong backing of the United Nations writ large.

The Security Council also approved the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to operate under Chapter VIII of the U.N. Charter.  In doing so, the Council empowered the African Union to utilize the Council’s Chapter VII use of force provisions in its mission to protect civilians and push back against militants, including those that targeted President Sheik on Wednesday. AMISOM is partially funded and equipped by the United Nations as well.

The mandate of AMISOM was just renewed in February of this year and revised to up the total allowed force to include the forces Kenya sent across the border in October 2011. The election of President Sheikh and the attempt on his life, while both major events in Somalia’s recovery or lack thereof, do little to affect the mission of AMISOM in any way that would require swift Council action. Instead, AMISOM seems to be continuing to protect Mogadishu and its attempts to finally take the port town of Kismayo.

Surprisingly, however, the Security Council has yet to put out a statement, either of the Press or Presidential variety, congratulating Mr. Sheikh nor condemning the attempt on his life. The silence on the matter could be one of tactical silence, due to the overwhelming role that the Council had in supporting the TFG and a desire to not unduly influence the new government. What’s unfortunately more likely, however, is that the passage of such a Statement was deemed a lower priority by the Members of the Council’s missions in the lead-up to the General Assembly. In either case, some word from the Security Council would do away with any notion that Somalia is slipping back into the recesses of the international community’s mind.

Libya/Egypt/Yemen/Sudan

The largest news in the United States this week on the foreign policy front has been the attacks on U.S. Embassies and Consulates in various countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa. These attacks have ranged in size, scale and motive, but have taken the lives of four Americans, including the Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens. And as of Friday morning, the German and British Embassies have been targeted as well.

The fact of the matter is that these attacks, while particularly heinous, are not the sort of issues that the Security Council deals with directly. Indeed, the question of embassy protection is mostly bilateral in nature and of greater importance to the states in question than the overall maintenance of peace and security. While the attacks, even those in Egypt where no lives were lost, are clear breaches of the Vienna Convention of 1961 and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963, the Council is in no position to act as an enforcer of those provisions. Indeed, any attempt to do more than issue the condemnatory statements against the attacks that it has would be imprudent, save at the unlikely request of one of the countries whose embassies have been sacked.

Anything more the Council can do, it already has. As an example, the U.N. Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) was developed in the aftermath of the fall of the Qaddafi regime to provide assistance to the new government in establishing its control of its territory. The Security Council received a briefing by Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffery Feltman on Wednesday, as he was previously scheduled to introduce the most recent UNSMIL report to the members:

“This horrific and tragic attack, together with a spate of assassinations of security personnel in Benghazi, a series of explosive devices in Tripoli, and attacks on Sufi shrines, further emphasizes the security challenge facing the authorities in Libya,” [said Feltman].

In the report itself, the mission highlighted a lack of central control by Tripoli over the many militias still active within Libya and difficulties in bringing the police force up to speed. Also, with the revocation of Resolution 1973’s authorization for countries to use force in Libya for “civilian protection”, any new authorization will have to get through a new vote on the Council, the likelihood of which is somewhere between slim and nil.

Likewise, in Yemen, the Security Council passed Resolutions 2014 and 2051 in 2011 and 2012 respectively to push a political transition in Yemen that would facilitate a changeover from former President Saleh’s regime. Outside of the Council, the Secretary-General appointed as his Special Representative for Yemen Jamal Benomar. SRSG Benomar was due to have been in Sana’a on Wednesday; it’s unknown if he was still in the capital during the protests at the U.S. Embassy, but it will be interesting to hear his next briefing. In any case, there is no useful role the Council could have taken in this incident.

As for Egypt and Sudan, in the former the United Nations has thus far, wisely, kept a hands-off role with the situation that has been developing internally there. The Embassy breach there is a matter for the United States and Egypt solely to work out, a process that is already under way after fits and starts. In the latter, the U.N. Security Council has enough to worry about in its handling of Khartoum to put forward anything more than a strong condemnation, considering it still requires Sudan’s by your leave to operate two peacekeeping missions in the area, one in Darfur, the other in the disputed territory of Abyei.

East/South China Sea 

Last night, going by U.S. time, China dispatched a small fleet of patrol boats near the set of islands in the middle of a dispute between themselves and several other states to provide “law enforcement”. The islands, known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan, are little more than clusters of uninhabitable rock in some places, but may hold valuable natural resources off their coast lines. More importantly, the ownership of the islands also helps determine the coastal waters of each country.

Sending out their patrol boats was meant to be a message of warning to Japan over its Tuesday announcement that it will purchase several of the islands from who Japan recognizes as their private owner. The Global Times issued an editorial stressing the need for Chinese unity to prevail throughout its development, noting that “China has no choice but to respond to Japan’s outrageous provocation. This is a vital step for China to consolidate its claims of sovereignty in the East and South China Seas.”

Maritime issues over tiny islands extend beyond Japan and China, with further claims laid by Viet Nam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines to ownership of various portions of island chains throughout the East and South China Seas. Separately from the Chinese and Japanese clash, the Philippines declared this week at the waters near the islands they lay claim to were not within the South China Sea, but rather the “West Philippine Sea”. China was less than impressed. No matter the name of the sea the islands are located in, China’s moving ships into the area to enforce Chinese law raises the ante on the need for a settlement.

As I have noted previously, Asia is, and will continue to be, something of blind spot for the Security Council. These maritime disputes fall squarely within China’s sphere of influence, an area that China has been loathe to bring to international bodies for arbitration. Already, China has been extremely uncomfortable in allowing the South China Sea dispute to be discussed at the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). The United States has been making a concerted push for negotiations on the final status of the islands to be made with ASEAN acting in unison, a move that China views warily at best, an attempt to unite the community against it at worst. Instead, China laboriously insists on concluding settlement over each of the claims bilaterally, where it will have more influence over the final outcome.

The fact is that China would prefer to keep it’s maritime boundaries negotiations as far away from the Security Council as possible. For the Security Council to discuss them would be an admission that actions were being taken that were a potential breach in international peace and security, a charge which could be levied at China itself. Even were the issue to come under debate, which is still possible as there is no way for the PRC to unilaterally block procedural motions such as placing items on the agenda, any resolution that China would find unfavorable to its interests would simply be vetoed.

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In summation, despite the hectic view of recent events from the United States, the U.N. Security Council has not been overly negligent in carrying out assigned duties. Instead, in areas where it has space to act, it has done so, or continued to proceed with decisions that had been previously made on the various hot spots. In some areas, however, it is constrained by its very make-up, an issue that could become a much larger problem as Asia becomes more of a breeding ground for state-to-state conflict.

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June 29, 2012

I’m Not Mad, Just Disappointed: Failures of Transparency and Accountability at the UN

Readers of this blog will be well familiar with my attempts to protect the UN from scurrilous attacks and slander. It’s a sad truth that the United Nations is often beset by its critics as being a weak-willed and corrupt institution, overabundant in ways to erect roadblocks to progress and lacking in its oversight. Sometimes those critics, unfortunately, hit the nail on the head.

In the case of roadblocks, often the structure of the body is at fault, with Member States exploring ways to hinder inquiries and reports that reflect poorly on its interests. The most recent example is the delay in the release of the Group of Experts report on the Democratic Republic of the Congo in recent weeks. The report is mandated by the Security Council as part of its sanctions regime against Kinshasaa and the a late-drafted annex to the latest deliverable points fingers at the Rwandan government for sowing insurrection in the DRC. The United States sought to hold off on the publication of the damning annex, first citing procedural reasons, then asking that the Rwandan government be able to review before release. Eventually, the US agreed to allow the document to be published in full, with the Rwandan government immediately issuing a statement of denial.

The Group of Experts report incident is less representative of the UN as organization, and more reflective of its role as collection of states. However poorly stonewalling in the Security Council of technical reports reflects on the body, though, it is still a political creature by nature. The Secretariat, on the other hand, has done little to help change the stereotype of an organization riddled with mismanagement. Indeed,  the lack of desire for transparency shown by the permanent staff at Turtle Bay seems absolute, even when the revelation of misdeeds serves its own interests.

A prime example of the latter comes in the UN’s incomprehensible handling of the situation surrounding peacekeepers assigned to Haiti. Following the accusation that Nepali blue helmets had inadvertently introduced cholera into earthquake-ravage Haiti, the UN managed to display precisely how not to handle a crisis. Despite evidence to the contrary, the United Nations refused to acknowledge its role in the spread of the disease, complicating efforts to treat the outbreak. Rather than stepping forward, accepting responsibility, and rotating out the Nepali contingency, the attempt to ward itself from criticize only provoked greater mistrust from the Haitians it was meant to protect.

The Haitian incident reflects the UN’s unease at responding in an accountable manner to external criticism. Even more unfortunate is its inability to handle internal criticism. After facing the fact that its Ethics Office is less than adept at handling cases of misdeeds by upper level staff, the General Assembly authorized the creation of the UN Dispute Tribunal in 2009, granting it binding authority to impose decisions even on top officials. The Secretariat has pushed back since its inception to attempt to weaken the body, but the Tribunal handed down its first decision recently, slamming the UN Ethics Office for its lack of protection in the case of whistleblowers.

This report from al-Jazeera provides more details on the case and its outcome:


On the one hand, I sympathize with those within the Secretariat who have to handle such cases on a regular basis. As indicated in the article, and detailed in former Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs Marrack Goulding made clear in his memoir, there are often forces at work preventing the effective management of employees. Among those issues are the system by which states are provided as near ‘equitable geographical distribution’ in staffing opportunities as possible, resulting in a quota system that doesn’t effectively bring on the most qualified staffers. Also, the system by which complaints regarding worker efficiency are processed is often met with an uproar that dwarfs the same in various national governments with retaliatory accusations are the norm in this climate.

Despite that, the actions of the UN in failing to protect legitimate whistle-blowers are still inexcusable. And the culture surrounding this attitude goes straight to the top floor in UN HQ. The Secretary-General is known for his mild-mannered nature compared to his predecessor, his desires to push for greater unified efforts towards sustainable development and outreach to the citizens of the states that make up the UN, and his unimpressive joke-telling abilities. The Wasserstrom case, and his gutting of the minimal authority granted to the Ethics Office in 2007, shows another side of Ban, one that is more concerned with preserving the freedom of action of the Office of the Secretary-General than of true reform.

This is a clear case of scolding because I love. The UN is an institution that deserves far more appreciation than it gets, and owes the world a far better system than it presents. The need for greater reforms from top to bottom are apparent to anyone. Challenges faced by would-be reformers in any bureaucracy are daunting, not least due to entrenched mindsets and long-time benefactors of the current system. However, reform is indeed necessary, less the good continue to be obscured by the bad in the UN system. The Secretariat, and especially the Secretary-General, needs to recognize a crisis at home that it actually has the power to fix, one that affects its ability to fulfill its other missions and in turn hurts the globe writ large. It’s hard to convince the world that you’re a global force for good when you refuse to face up to your own flaws.

May 30, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lie: Robert Mugabe was named a UN Tourism Ambassador

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

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

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

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

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.

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.)

February 22, 2012

AMISOM: New Start or New Band-Aid?

The coverage surrounding today’s UN Security Council unanimous decision on Somalia would have you believe that the corner is about to be turned, the end is nigh for Somalia’s problems, and help is on the way, with another 5,00 forces soon to be delivered. You would be quite wrong on that point. While today’s Security Council resolution is important, it’s not for the reasons that you may think.

Today’s vote approved Resolution 2036, the text of which can be found here. The provision that’s being most widely reported is Operative Clause 2’s increase of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM)’s maximum number of peacekeepers:

Requests the African Union to increase AMISOM’s force strength from 12,000 to a maximum of 17,731 uniformed personnel, comprised of troops and personnel of formed police units;

This is true; the upper number of troops that can now take part has been raised, meaning that now more troops can be supported by AMISOM, which is itself at least partially funded by the United Nations and European Union. What the draft doesn’t make clear, however, is that the “new” troops are already on the ground in Southern Somalia.

That’s right, this resolution authorizes the status quo and allows for the bureaucracy surrounding the mission to function more smoothly. You see, the Kenyan Army invaded Somalia late last year in an attempt to suppress the growth and momentum of al-Shabaab. Ethiopia soon followed suit, with the two armies, and AMISOM, working to push back al-Shabaab. They’ve been doing a decent job of it ad-hoc so far, but the United Kingdom has been pushing for a formalization of this effort. The desire to finally lockdown security is apparent in that once you actually get into the weeds of this resolution, it reads like a strategy to end al-Shabaab. Which it is. For example, the text expands “AMISOM’s presence to three sectors outside Mogadishu and supports implementation of some of the key elements of the new strategic concept for AMISOM adopted by the AU Peace and Security Council”. S/2036 also expands the mandate of the AU mission to specifically cite al-Shabaab as an entity which it is authorized to use “all necessary means” to target.

What’s interesting about this resolution is that it spells out what is left vague in most other resolutions dealing with peace-enforcement by regional bodies. When NATO is given a green-light to operate, it tends to pick up the ball and run with whatever scant detail the authorization provides. The African Union, however, doesn’t have the budget of the North Atlantic community, and given the unwillingness for the Security Council to launch another blue helmet mission in Somalia, is content to do the fighting while the UN pays the bills. Those bills will be rising substantially now that Kenyan forces will be under the banner of AMISOM; from $250M to $550M for logistics and supplies to be taken from the UN’s regular budget, while the EU foots the bill for AMISOM’s troops. Despite the cost, several states are still dismayed that the draft didn’t go far enough. In the speeches following the vote, US Ambassador Susan Rice expressed disappointment that a maritime component was not added to the resolution’s aims, while the Indian Permanent Representative wished that the costs covered by the resolution included state’s patrols of the Gulf of Aden and surrounding waters. As India, China, France, the UK, and US all have ships in the region, it would have been quite the payout.

This isn’t to say that the resolution is solely focused on the military component of rehabilitating Somalia. It does stress in several places the need for political and economic components to the efforts to rebuild Somalia after al-Shabaab is cleared from an area, as well as emphasizing the need for humanitarian assistance to be able to move unhindered. What’s interesting, however, is that the United Kingdom pushed this text through at this time. The London Conference on Somalia is set to open tomorrow, and according to Security Council Report, several states were hesitant to vote today, for danger of putting the cart before the horse.

Another provision worth noting is the ascendance of charcoal to the level of “embargoed conflict mineral”. As I learned yesterday, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has had a ban on the export of charcoal for quite some time, as its sale is a huge funder of Shabaab’s activities. Unable to enforce the ban, however, the international community has now stepped in. Under Operative Clause 22, states are to be forbidden from importing Somali charcoal, directly or indirectly. Three experts, Laura Seay, Dan Solomon, and Semhar Araia weren’t keen on the likelihood of success of this embargo when asked on Twitter, noting that enforcement issues and continuing demand will hamper the efforts, likely resulting in

It remains to be seen what lasting impact today’s resolution will have, as the London Conference convenes tomorrow. I’d like to say that I’m hopeful about the conference’s chances, but most of the reports are tinged with doubt. It doesn’t help that the final communiqué from the conference was leaked last week, leaving many wondering what the point of the conference is at all. Granted, this is the first major international conference on Somalia that actually thought to include Muslim-majority states to take part. But members of the diaspora are less than pleased, and potential new funders, like Turkey and the UAE, are grumbling at a seeming bias towards the US and Ethiopia’s views.

Tomorrow’s conference is expected to endorse the dissolving of the TFG, to be replaced by a new political body entirely, with a permanent fedeeral government to be set up by August 2012. That this is even being considered, rather than simply extending the TFG’s mandate by yet another year, is a welcome bit of new thinking that could help push Somalia on a new path after twenty years of being a failed state. It’s needed, because otherwise the “increase” of AMISOM’s forces will be just another band-aid hoping to cure a critical wound. The international community is finally acting with a renewed determination towards getting Somalia. But like most things relating to Somalia, the situation on the ground is what matters. AMISOM’s “new” forces won’t be a game-changer, but they’ll hopefully at least be the start of something big.

February 14, 2012

Libya: Neither Paradise nor Beyond Thunderdome

Since the end of the NATO bombing portion of the Libyan civil war, there’s been a lot of speculation about whether the West acted in the right in intervening in the first place. The thrust of the two main arguments are that either: the United States and its allies prevented a massacre, upheld the Responsibility to Protect, and the future of Libya is a far brighter one than if Qaddafi had been allowed to hold power; or, the entire mission was a mistake from the beginning, one lacking the strategic components necessary to be worth it, and the aftermath is a Libya that is far from the ideal that the former group paints it as. Both groups have solid points, though I myself lean more towards the former. It’s hard to argue, though, with the fact that Libya’s transition to democracy is anything but smooth.

The National Transitional Council (NTC) which first consolidated the revolution against Qaddafi into political power has been less than effective when it comes to actually governing the state. This isn’t all that much of a surprise to me, considering that while several members did formerly serve in the regime, way back when, the Qaddafi government was basically one-man. Any semblance of lasting institutions were completely torn-down over the Colonel’s lengthy rule, and rebuilding those is going to take time, far less time than most outsiders are willing to provide rebuilding states. When one person has controlled all decisions, and changed laws and rules according to his whim, how then do you know how to run a state? And don’t accuse me of paternalism at this point; it’s not that I think the Libyans are incapable of self-rule, just that they don’t have practice.

One of the most frustrating things to see in the aftermath of conflict is an insistence that new governments move faster, seize control of their territory quicker, raise themselves to the standards we have set for them. Don’t get me wrong, I agree that new governments have a responsibility to move as quickly as possible in providing, among other things, security and good governance to their people. Pressure should be kept up on these states, less they think that its acceptable behavior to the international community. But I don’t expect perfection overnight, or for a government to completely rebuild its civil society in six months time. As someone who opposed the War in Iraq at its outset, one of the least convincing arguments I’ve heard about why it was a terrible idea is the current lack of political stability in Iraq, which oddly enough is one of the right’s largest reasons why we shouldn’t have withdrawn our uniformed forces. But I digress.

I’m not an expert in democratization, but I do believe that these things take time. Tripoli fell just shy of six months ago; Qaddafi was killed four months ago. Going by the standards that many seem to arbitrarily set on either completely new political entities like South Sudan or new regimes such as the one in Libya, the United States itself was an abject failure for the first several years of its existence. Soldiers went unpaid and over-armed, the central government wasn’t sure how to enforce its will on new territory, the original system set up to govern was found to be completely unworkable, there were questions on how to handle loyalists who still lived in the new country. The list goes on. Two centuries of practice exist between now and then, leading many to believe that the country sprung forth in its current form.  The basic principles remain the same, so far as state-building goes, and those two-hundred years of practice aren’t easily transferred.

It’s in this light I came across an article in the Washington Post, helpfully posted by Daniel Solomon, describing a new challenge faced by the NTC:

Representatives of about 100 militias from western Libya said Monday they had formed a new federation to prevent infighting and allow them to press the country’s new government for further reform.

The move was a blow to the National Transitional Council, which helped lead the eight-month uprising against longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi that ended with his capture and death in October. The NTC has struggled for months to stamp its authority on the country, and has largely failed to decommission or bring under its control the hundreds of militias that fought in the war.

There is an initial, visceral reaction to this news, one that speaks to many of the fears that go hand-in-hand with the Arab Spring writ large. The fear that for all our best hopes, this will end in a new enemy to the United States. I think that there’s reason behind this reaction, but I do think that there’s also room for cautious optimism. This development could go one of two ways, by my seeing. The first, far preferable way to outside observers, is that the militias in the new Federation accept the results of future elections and continue the development of a political wing to their machinations. Members of this Federation could contest seats in the National Parliament elections this summer against those backed by the NTC. They could then go on to become either a loyal opposition to the members of the NTC, or the leaders of the government in their own right. Or, given the difficulties that the NTC has in unifying command under the Defense Ministry, the Federation could face the same problems and lose control of its groups, furthering violence as they turn on each other. Neither path is a foregone conclusion at this point.

Splits of this nature aren’t inevitable, but they have always been likely, considering that rather than undergoing the Libyan version of de-Baathification, many officers in the National Army are holdovers from the Qaddafi days. What’s needed in Libya is an increase of trust between militias and transparency on behalf of the NTC. Proposals, not laws yet, for how to divide up Libya’s oil revenues should be prepared ahead of the seating of the new Parliament and made public, and NTC meetings should be made more open until national elections in June. Militias should be encouraged to reach out to each other, in information sharing and training exercises, fostered by the Ministry of Defense. I don’t believe that the many disparate militias will cede control automatically; transition time there is needed, too.

None of this is intended to give a free pass to the NTC for its failings and carpet over difficulties inherent in transitioning to a democratic state. The NTC shouldn’t get just a pat on the shoulder and soothing words for its inability to prevent torture in militia hospitals. Nor is it a naive wish and hope that renewed clashes between militias will just go away. With the number of arms floating around the country, from light weapons to MANPADS, and the current lack of opportunity outside of the militias, the now once-weekly clashes in Tripoli are likely to continue. Rather, this is to say that the United States in particular should be working to assist the NTC and this new group in forming a free and prosperous Libya together.  I stress again I’m not an expert on any of these matters; if what I’m saying is misreading the situation or runs counter to facts, correct me. But in my view, instead of panicking and washing our hands of Libya, we should be fostering ties, and lending assistance wherever possible, through the auspices of the State Department or the United Nations, to keep Libya from pulling apart at the seams.

January 17, 2012

Russia considering time-honored “Cut and Run” tactic from UN’s South Sudan mission

News came across the wire today that Russia is considering withdrawing their 120 peacekeepers from the United Nations Mission to South Sudan (UNMISS), charged with stabilizing the security of the new country. While the number may not seem like a lot, the Russians would also take home their four utility helicopters, which are used for transport from the UNMISS base to points across the country. Russia formerly operated eight helicopters in the state, having already pulled half back in December after incidents of South Sudanese security forces attacking the choppers. From Reuters:

Russia’s U.N. mission said in a statement to Reuters that Moscow was “alarmed” by attacks on utility helicopters operated by the Russian military for UNMISS.

“Recently the situation in providing security to the Russian helicopter crews has been deteriorating,” the mission said.

But a mission spokesman made clear that a final decision on whether or not to pull out of UNMISS had not been made. “Administrative matters pertaining to a new letter of assist (contract with the U.N.) are being discussed by the parties,” the spokesman said.

To cover for the shortage of helicopters in South Sudan, [the UN] said UNMISS would be temporarily using helicopters from the U.N. mission in Democratic Republic of the Congo and a separate Ethiopian stabilization force, called UNISFA, currently in the disputed Abyei region bordering north and South Sudan.

The lack of helicopters has been blamed for the slow United Nations response to the violence that took place earlier this month in area surrounding Pibor. Inner City Press reports that while it is true that Russian helicopters refused to take-off at the request of the mission, that the copters themselves weren’t technically at the call of UNMISS. Rather, they were provided to the now defunct UNMIS, with the agreement between the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the Russian government having expired on December 1st. This is clearly the fault of the United Nations Secretariat, but it shouldn’t be an impetus for Russian withdrawal, with the Russians arguing that their peacekeepers are being kept safe.

I sincerely hope that the Russians don’t withdraw from the Mission. Because if they do? They’ll be showing adherence to a time-honored tradition when it comes to United Nations peacekeeping missions: weakness. ‘This mission isn’t precisely what I intended, ergo I must bail’. For a state that prides itself on bucking Western-norms, Russia seems to be lining right up with the rest of the developed world when it comes to providing forces to these missions. Risks are acceptable, so long as its only forces from Uganda or Bangladesh accepting them, never mind that the developed states are the only ones with the technology that can further improve the likelihood of success for the mandates we approved.

I may be called hypocritical, in light of the United States’ continued refusal to commit forces under the banner of the United Nations, instead preferring to call the shots while under the veneer of UN approval. Well, I would say the exact same thing if the was the US who was withdrawing, all other factors being the same. Comparisons to the US withdrawal in Somalia would be unfair, however; in that instance, the unclear mission and overreach by the United States in terms of mandate led to the situation in Mogadishu that prompted withdrawal. The case for Russia to pull the same move isn’t equivalent, as there have been precisely zero casualties. Even the Belgians withdrawal from Rwanda, a state where a genocide was actively occurring, took place after actual deaths of soldiers; the situation here is a product of bureaucratic wrangling and lack of will.

Don’t for a second think that I’m discounting the difficulty inherent in the job of peacekeepers themselves, soldiers from other lands, often times with confused instructions and loyalties. I can’t imagine being deployed to UN operations, knowing that you are potentially volunteering your life in a part of the world where you have no interest in being. But that’s part of the point. The blue helmets know what they are signing up for. Or at least their government does. And it is the government that chooses to withdraw their contributions. It seems to me that it’s almost worse for a member-state to contribute forces, then feign shock when there are actual guns being fired in these locales and a security apparatus in need of reform. It’s right there in the mandate that UNMISS forces are expected to “deter violence including through proactive deployment and patrols in areas at high risk of conflict, within its capabilities and in its areas of deployment, protecting civilians under imminent threat of physical violence, in particular when the Government of the Republic of South Sudan is not providing such security”.  

The United Nations’ forces in the field can’t be taken seriously as a force for stabilization, not when it’s known to everyone with a semi-automatic that a few rounds fired or an incorrectly filed piece of paperwork can cause the withdrawal of key members. And it is the lack of serious, well-trained troops being available at the UN’s call that leads to issues of inefficiency in the ranks and having to sacrifice hastening missions into their intended states or thorough training. It’s a miracle at times when states are actually willing to contribute these forces and a heartbreak when they’re called home prematurely. South Sudan needs all the help it can get if it’s to survive as a newly independent state. Moscow claims that it has not made a final decision on whether to end its participation in UNMISS. I can only hope that I’ll be surprised by their choice.