Archive for ‘Security’

March 31, 2013

The UN, War, and the Korean Peninsula, or, We Have No Idea What’s Going On

It’s that time of year again, that time when the thoughts of many in D.C. turn to “Is today the day we’re going to war with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea?” D.C. is a weird place. In any case, the question is out there, and whether you agree with the analysis that we should be more worried this time than the many, many other instances of sabre-rattling from North Korea, it’s worth investigating a few less considered questions about any possible U.S. response to the DPRK.

Among those questions that I can honestly say is probably the least considered is “What about the United Nations?” Specifically “What about the U.N.’s original authorization for force against Korea?” Much like DC is a weird place, I am a weird person. But as the rhetoric has increased over the last few weeks, I’ve found myself considering just what role the U.N. would be in the event of renewed hostilities on the Korean Peninsula. I’m not just talking about the normal round of sanctions or diplomatic statements from the U.N. Security Council, but what role they should play in authorizing the use of force in the event of war.

We all know that the there’s no real peace between the Republic of Korea and the DPRK, whether Kim Jong-Un says there’s a “state of war” between the two countries or not. And despite the multiple attempts of Pyongyang to call the whole thing off, the cease-fire between the two is still in place according to the United Nations. And the simple fact is that should North Korea attack the South, Seoul has the right to self-defense under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, whether the Council takes action or not.

But that right only goes as far as repulsion, defending against an attack, not necessarily an all-out offensive against the North or a preventative strike. So that led me to wonder just what authorities remain in place from the last time the two countries slugged it out: the Korean War. The fight against North Korea following its 1950 invasion of the South was — in name at least — fought under the banner of the United Nations.

So to begin with, let’s examine the resolutions the Security Council passed to authorize the use of force in Korea in the first place. Resolution 83, passed in the aftermath of a prior demand that North Korea cease hostilities being totally ignored, authorized the members of the U.N. to take action against the North. Sort of:

Recommends that the Members of the United Nations furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and to restore international peace and security in the area.

That was quickly followed up with Resolution 84, that put the United States in charge of the U.N. operations in Korea and gave the commander the permission to do so in the name of the United Nations:

3. Recommends that all Members providing military forces and other assistance pursuant to the aforesaid Security Council resolutions make such forces and other assistance available to a unified command under the United States of America;

4. Requests the United States to designate the commander of such forces;

5. Authorizes the unified command at its discretion to use the United Nations flag in the course of operations against North Korean forces concurrently with the flags of the various nations participating;

Note that word there again — “recommends.” The Security Council was still less than a decade old at this time, and the language used in resolutions still had not been codified as it is today. These days, it’s accepted that use of the phrase “demands” or “commands” or other, stronger words is necessary to make the policies put forward from the Council totally binding. The early Security Council also wasn’t big on detail, preferring to pass short, broad resolutions, rather than the dense documents we see today.

Also, the fact is that the only reason the Council was able to take action against North Korea in the first place was the worst timed boycott in history; the Soviet Union was sitting out the debate and totally regret the decision. In any case, the original resolutions passed the Council, but with the return of the USSR, Moscow’s veto prevented much other action.

So they moved to the General Assembly. Yes, the Korean War prompted the conception of the “Uniting for Peace” resolution, wherein the General Assembly could bypass the Security Council in the event of a deadlock. I’ve written a good amount about why that was a bit shaky to begin with, so just go read that, but the G.A. then took command of U.N. policy towards Korea.

All of this is to say that the legal framework originally set up for the United Nations Command is on somewhat weak standing to begin with. The United Nations Command (UNC), by the by, is the formal name for group that took enforcement action against Pyongyang and soon Beijing. There was no such thing as the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, no power to the Secretary-General to really shape how this worked. Everything was run first through the UNSC, then the General Assembly. Again, sort of — the United States held all command authority, and the U.N. took part in name only, having no effect on strategy or tactics in the field aside from naming China a belligerent in late 1950.

For better or for worse, the UNC carried out its mission over the next several years, under the United States’ leadership. All of the deaths and years of fighting ultimately culminated in the Armistice Agreement, signed between — technically — the United Nations Command and North Korea. That Agreement gave a role to the UNC in administering the cease-fire, and set up the Demilitarized Zone as well as other, lesser known legal entities. Among those entities are the Military Armistice Commission (MAC), nestled under the UNC, and the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC).

While regular meetings of the two sides’ MAC members have halted in favor of meetings between duty officers in Panmunjom, the NNSC is still gong strong. The NNSC was originally to be composed of forces from nations who did not take part in the fighting watching over the DMZ, with the UNC-side nominating two countries and the DPRK nominating the other. The UNC choices of Sweden and Switzerland are still in place, while the Czech Republic and Hungary were forced out after the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc. The Washington Post’s Max Fisher recently suggested that a factory shared between the North and South is the place to watch for any sign of coming war; for my money, I say watch to see if the Swiss and Swedes are ever forced to leave as the true sign that the worst is coming.

In any case, the vast majority of the forces donated by U.N. Member States to the operation left after 1953, and operational duties of the U.S. and South Korean forces now falls under the Combined Forces Command (CFC). Established in 1978, this bilateral organization was designed to take the place of the UNC in commanding those that oppose the DPRK. Again, sort of — you’re beginning to see why this whole thing is ridiculously hard to untangle. Because as it turns out the UNC is still alive and kicking, so much so that it has a Commander — General James D. Thurman — who is also the head of the CFC.

That’s because, as it turns out, the authority of the United Nations Command was never switched off. No sunset clause was placed in the original resolutions, nor has the Security Council passed anything closing that authority like we’ve seen recently in the case of Libya. In fact, the latest action the U.N. took on the UNC was all the way back 1975. Even then, it was only two contradictory General Assembly resolutions, one “hoping” that the United Nations Command eventually be dissolved, the other “considering it necessary” that the UNC be dissolved. Neither was binding, neither followed through on.

The DPRK has as recently as this year said the United Nations Command should be dissolved. The U.S. at one point agreed, telling the Security Council in 1975 that the UNC would be dissolved in early 1976, as “the U.N. flag no longer flies only over most military installations” in Korea, only those places that help administer the armistice. Washington clearly changed its mind though at some point, because in 1994 then-Secretary-General Boutrous Boutrous-Ghali told North Korea in response to Pyongyang’s request that the UN be terminated that only the U.S. — and not any U.N. organ — has “the authority to decide on the continued existence or the dissolution of the United Nations Command.” And here it remains.

And all of that only takes into account the United Nations direct authority, not factoring in things like whether the U.S.-RoK mutual defense treaty trumps any need for a new resolution from the Security Council. So in the end, we return to the question “Does the United Nations approval for the use of force against Korea still stand?” The answer to that question was best given by The Simpsons‘ Rev. Lovejoy: “Short answer, ‘Yes, with an if’; long answer ‘No, with a but.'”

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September 21, 2012

Extended Version: Palestine Seeking Observer Membership Status at UN

As you may have heard, the Palestinian Authority has opted to return to the U.N. this year to seek recognition. I have a piece up on UN Dispatch to that very effect. While the government of President Abbas has said now that they’ll delay the vote until after the U.S. Presidential elections, that’s all it is: a delay. This year, it’s going to be way harder to convince the Palestinians to back down from their efforts, for a number of reasons.

First the ease in which the vote should come out in their favor has to be a draw. The Palestinian Mission is already predicting upwards of 120 votes in favor of their upgrade, far more than the necessary 97 required. Indeed, they’re hoping for a blowout vote of “between 150 and 170 nations” voting ‘yes’. Knowing that this is so close within their grasp will make it hard for the U.S. and others to cut a deal halting it.

The difficulty in dissuading Abbas is compounded by the domestic situation in Ramallah. Last year’s U.N. push resulted in Abbas receiving a hero’s welcome upon his return from New York. This year, he’s faced a surge in pushback against his government, culminating in protests that have roiled the West Bank. Abbas is left in need of a short-term win to distract from the economic troubles that the Palestinian people have been bearing. A successful recognition of the State of Palestine by the United Nations would lift his standing enough to give him breathing room.

Abbas is betting that Palestinian independence can be better achieved with the help of its new standing at the ICC, giving him a long-term incentive to pursue the vote. Difficulty comes in the midterm, as Israel reacts to a Palestinian upgrade. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has already threatened to withhold much needed tax revenue from the West Bank government should they proceed, which would further the economic calamity in the West Bank. Also uncertain is the effect that de jure statehood would have regarding the split between Abbas’ Fatah government in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza.

So the odds are good that we’re going to see Palestine bumped up to being an Observer State at the U.N. this Fall. The real question is what repercussions that will have both directly between Israel and Palestine and what it means for the United States and the U.N. in general.

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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September 11, 2012

The DPRK’s Victim Complex Strikes Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 5, 2012

The U.N.’s peacekeeping mandate is just fine, thanks for asking

The world has yet to reach the point where there is a dearth of articles on the United Nations whose assumptions are off-base. The latest in this series has the provocative title of “Has the U.N. lost its peacekeeping mandate?” Written by Brian P. Klein, a former Foreign Service Officer in Japan and Council on Foreign Relations Fellow, the essay takes an absurd number of shortcuts and liberties with the actual work of the U.N. to somehow reach a conclusion that I don’t entirely disagree with. In the interest of setting the record straight, we begin.

Now that Kofi Annan has stepped down from his position as U.N. Arab League Envoy to Syria and peacekeeping troops are being removed from the country one has to wonder – does the United Nations have any role to play in conflict resolution?

Right off the bat, we’re confronted with an unforced error by Klein. There were never, I repeat, never peacekeeping troops inside of Syria. ‘Troops’ gives the impression that there were forces of the traditional sort first employed in 1956 by the United Nations Emergency Force separating the Egyptian and Israeli armies, the kind who carry arms with the mandate to shoot in self-defense and act as a buffer between clearly defined sides. What he probably meant to refer to was the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria, whose goal was to oversee a ceasefire. But these were unarmed Observers, whose mandate was to watch and report, which they did under increasingly difficult circumstances.

As to the second point, Klein’s argument suffers again from failing to define the terms he uses. Conflict resolution encompasses a multitude of areas, including the provisions of Chapter VI for mediation before violence, an area that the Security Council has actually been lacking in providing lately. Had he been arguing, as many have, that the United Nations was not designed to suppress intrastate violence, vis a vis interstate warfare, he would be given more leeway by me. As he was not, we carry on.

The reality is that the Annan Plan, which supported an interim government to shepherd Syria into a post-dictatorship future, was doomed from the start. Bashar al-Assad was to unilaterally step down in the middle of ongoing hostilities while his forces held the momentum against a popular uprising.

The Annan Plan was, in fact, always unlikely to succeed, but not entirely for the reasons Klein lists. Rather than being an inherit flaw in the plan, as Mark Goldberg noted at UN DispatchAnnan was never truly given the support needed to succeed. We can’t be certain what would have happened had Russia in particular buckled down and pushed Assad to accept the terms of the Annan Plan. However, without that support, Assad would have never accepted the terms. Further, I’m confused as to what Klein suggests would have been a more feasible scheme for Annan to have pitched or what a more ideal move by the international community would have been.

Al-Assad of course played the statesman, met with U.N. officials and allowed troops to enter Syria. No one was fooled for long. His military began an all-out assault soon after Annan’s plane took off. Helicopter gunships and fighter jets strafed cities as civilian casualties mounted. Nearly $17 million was authorized for the 150 military observers and 105 civilians. While a paltry sum considering the more than $7 billion peacekeeping budget, that money could have funded, for example, 2,400 water projects for creating wells to bring safe drinking water to over a million people in need.

His argument that 2,400 water projects could have been funded sounds convincing. But why would that money have been best spent producing wells? Why not inoculating against common diseases? Why not funding a spread of human rights literature?

What Klein touches on here is a less specifically about the United Nations, than about the management of limited resources.  All organizations, be they IGOs or governments, face these questions, and there will always be disagreements on how their resources are best used. There will also always be suggestions that these resources are being used improperly, no matter what the target.

Instead, United Nations’ efforts lengthened by weeks if not months a concerted move by regional powers to openly oppose Syria’s indiscriminate attacks on its citizenry.  The General Assembly then voted to censure its own Security Council for failing to do more.

Klein conveniently ignores the fact that Arab League itself went to the United Nations in support of its peace plan for the region. Following the first veto of Russia and China, the League only returned to the U.N. after the failure of its own observer mission, rather than the U.N. butting in on the initiatives of the regional organization. That the Security Council found itself unable to agree on a course of action actually did little to prevent either the meeting of the “Friends of Syria”, nor the funneling of arms by Gulf states into the hands of rebels.

As far as the ‘censure’ of the Security Council by the General Assembly, the actual event lacked the drama that Klein infused into the action. A resolution condemning Syria’s ongoing abuses included a preambulatory clause, a framing of the issue to translate into non-U.N., “deploring the failure of the Security Council to agree on measures to ensure the compliance of Syrian authorities with its decisions”. In other words, shame on the Council for not agreeing on sanctions. A big difference between that and a censure in the diplomatic world, and one calculated to move certain members of the Council. That said members of the Council didn’t vote for said resolution is unsurprising.

The absurdity of the U.N. divided against itself is compounded by the poor track record of stopping violence. Despite the main charter of the U.N. beginning with lofty ideals to “take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression…” the supra-national force has never been a realistic fighting military. It lacks the command, control, intelligence and weaponry to stop war once it has begun.

Klein’s argument has some historical merit. The United Nations envisioned by Roosevelt involved ‘Four Five Policemen’ acting in unison to combat the world’s ills, and put down revisionist regimes who sought to overthrow the world order. That vision became the Security Council’s Permanent Members, who, by the design of the Soviet Union, were given a veto over the actions of the Council should their own interests be at stake. From the very beginning, the Security Council was created to only act when all the Great Powers were in unison. Barring that unity, as here in Syria, it can’t unleash its military forces against a given target.

The early years of the United Nations also saw the rejection and/or ignoring of two crucial mechanisms to so enforce the peace as placed in the Charter. The Military Staff Committee of the Security Council was meant to be composed of the Chiefs of Staff for the Armed Forces of all the Permanent Members, providing tactical advice to the Council as it fulfilled its mandate of keeping the peace. It exists to this day, a vestigial organ of the Council, which has not briefed its members in over sixty years.

So too provisions for Member States to place divisions of its air force available to the United Nations for immediate use at a moments notice evaporated soon after the Charter’s signing. Initial Cold War mentalities, soon followed by a desire to limit the strength of the U.N. precluded such steps from being taken. I’ve argued previously that should the Council continue to insist on launching new and more complicated peacekeeping and peace enforcing missions that the MSC should be revitalized, the air forces should be provided to the U.N., or both.

Despite all that history in his favor, Klein still seems to have forgotten instances where the full authority of the UN were unlocked, giving way to “all necessary means” resolutions of the Council. With those three words, we’ve seen free rein for the armed forces of its members, the United States in particular, to carry out the Council’s mandates. We’ve seen it in the 1950s in Korea, in the 1990s in Iraq, and, somewhat creatively, in Libya in 2011. The former two were the sorts of interstate conflict that the United Nations was specifically designed to counter and bring to a halt.

With the world economy tilting dangerously towards stagnation, U.N. budgets will inevitably be forced to shrink. The world body would therefore be well advised to focus on its humanitarian strengths and less on the intractable, hard-scrabble world of armed conflict.

This paragraph is in essence advocating getting rid of the Security Council, one of the few bodies that is actually empowered to act and bind states to its decisions, and keeps several members of the Permanent Five in the U.N. to begin with. Moving on!

This isn’t the first time that poorly conceived efforts failed to turn aggression into peaceful resolution. In the 1990’s, U.N. forces were withdrawn in the face of overwhelming evidence of Rwandan genocidal atrocities. In Kosovo, it took then President Bill Clinton committing U.S. forces to protect a Muslim minority from being massacred by their neighbors.

Again with the lack of distinction between interstate and intrastate conflicts. Rwanda was a disaster, and yes, U.N. peacekeeping troops were withdrawn. However, this was due less to the ability of the United Nations than the will of the Member States. No states at the time were willing to increase the mandate of the protection force in Rwanda, despite calls on the ground to do so, and in the face of increased violence opted to simply terminate the mission. The specifics of this incident keep it from fitting neatly into Klein’s framework.

As for Clinton’s foray into Kosovo, yet another intrastate conflict, it’s still shaky whether NATO acted in accordance with international law when bombing Serbia. So to be honest, not sure if he’s advocating removing the provision that only the U.N. Security Council can authorize the use of force from its position as a basis of current international law.

These days, violence still flares in the Democratic Republic of the Congo despite a U.N. presence dating back to July 2010 that now numbers over 23,000 personnel (including 19,000 in uniform) and a budget of $1.4 billion. To keep the peace in Darfur, Sudan (17,000 military) and newly created South Sudan (over 5,500) the U.N. is spending nearly $2.5 billion. And with all those forces in place, tens of thousands still flee fighting as the humanitarian situation continues to worsen. Doctors Without Borders highlighted in an August report the ongoing health crisis in Batil Camp, South Sudan with diarrhea causing 90 percent of deaths and malnourishment rates in those under two years-old hitting 44 percent. Of all the tragedies of war, these are imminently solvable problems, and yet too many continue to die because of misallocated priorities and resources.

Klein chose the wrong example to highlight his argument by far. MONUSCO is one of the most effective peacekeeping missions, and most strongly empowered to protect civilians. In July, MONUSCO utilized attack helicopters in conjunction with the Congolese Army to protect civilians against the M23 militia. The Congolese government even wants the Security Council to increase MONUSCO’s mandate. Unless Klein is saying that the U.N. should as a matter of blanket policy ignore states that actively ask for help in enforcing peace and protecting civilians inside its borders, contra the second pillar of the Responsibility to Protect, this seems pretty cut and dry.

Further, all of Klein’s arguments about providing for greater humanitarian aid in lieu of U.N. peacekeeping missions preclude two things. First, how much worse would the violence be on the ground without the presence of these missions. Second, how on Earth the NGOs and other humanitarian agencies he cites would be able to do their jobs lacking proper protection from active conflict. It’s not as though aid workers aren’t in enough danger as it is operating in war zones or places where violence is still the norm post-conflict. Is he suggesting that NGOs begin hiring of armed mercenaries to provide that service?

Security Council resolutions, sanctions and other tools of the diplomatic trade do very little to change the on-the-ground reality of war. Arms continue flowing across porous borders despite calls for embargoes. While world leaders make grand speeches defending their non-intervention or the inalienable rights of humanity in the green marbled U.N. headquarters, countries continue to act with or without U.N. sanction. Spending on “political affairs” and “overall policymaking, direction and coordination” accounts for nearly 40 percent of the United Nations’ current $5.1 billion operating budget. Peacekeeping operations total another $7 billion for 2012-2013.

Klein is right in that sanctions don’t completely alter the rules of economics; as the demand remains, the supply will find a way. What he doesn’t mention is that those arms embargoes he scorns exist give states the right to enforce them, through means such as stopping ships on the high seas. He also remains correct that states who don’t like Security Council decisions are not likely to follow them and will seek ways around them. There will always be those, individuals and states alike, who seek to circumvent those rules, but to act as though the world would be a better place without them is a fallacy.

Less sarcastically, he is correct about the absurdity of the U.N. budget spent in operating costs. Part of it comes from just how sprawling the United Nations system is; efforts to make sure everyone knows what everyone else is doing are costly. But were the U.N. as a whole to be judged by the same mechanisms that monitor NGOs spending, it would receive a failing grade.

Yet where the United Nations excels, in disaster relief, health initiatives, education, and support for refugees, programs remain woefully underfunded often requiring public appeals with Hollywood A-listers to bolster their sagging budgets. Few would argue against feeding a malnourished child on the verge of starvation with Angelina Jolie passing out the collections tin. Many would argue for weeks and at considerable expense, mincing words in watered-down, grand sounding political statements on the inherent value of peace.

Certainly, peacekeeping has done some good, but the disproportionate amount spent on these efforts, with such poor results overall and over such a long period of time, need re-examination. A U.N. force has maintained a presence in the Western Sahara since 1994 and has been “stabilizing” Haiti for the past 8 years, costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

Again, poor example. The International Crisis Group recently released a report noting the folly of withdrawing MINUSTAH from Haiti too quickly, stating “it would be foolhardy to rush that process given the serious gaps in consolidating security and justice. Despite the voices advocating for a more rapid exodus, it is unlikely that full departure can or should be accomplished before a third peaceful handover of democratic power takes place at the end of the Martelly presidency, five years from now, which also should correspond to the completion of the second five-year police development plan”.

His overarching point that UN projects that directly impact people on the ground are sorely underfunded does stand, however. The fact that the humanitarian fund for Syria remains under half-pledged, let alone received, is saddening. However, to pull that funding directly from peacekeeping operations would exacerbate problems elsewhere. As noted earlier, the determination of how to divide limited resources is vexing, and should be vexing. If it weren’t, the process would be lacking any sort of analysis or reflection, which would result in a worsening of any organization’s effectiveness.

It is incumbent on major donors like the U.S., Japan and the U.K., which collectively fund nearly half of annual peacekeeping efforts, to weigh in heavily on reform. Direct the limited amount of resources to programs that make a difference and stop relying on antiquated dreams of stateless noble actors bequeathing peace from above. Build on peace from the ground up instead.

Finally, a policy point that we can fully agree on! The United Nations should do more to help prevent conflicts before they reach the state of continued violence. It should also be in the business of building peace post-conflict. If only there was some sort of Peacebuilding Commission within the U.N….

In all seriousness, I agree with several of Klein’s points regarding the allocation of limited resources and his desire for the United Nations to highlight areas where it has historically shone. However, his thesis that the United Nations does more ill than good when it comes to ‘conflict resolution’ is one that is both poorly argued and not backed up by empirical evidence.

August 27, 2012

Iran and the UN: Not exactly BFFs

Iran and the United Nations aren’t on the best of terms right now. The relationship between the two over the last decade has been chilly, at best, as Iran has repeatedly ignored calls from various UN bodies to be more transparent regarding its supposedly civilian nuclear program. Indeed, what was meant to highlight Iran’s solidarity with the non-Western world may in fact wind up showing just how much the rest of the world, the United Nations included, is against it.

Commentators may make much of the Iranian chairmanship of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), meeting now in Tehran, but the truth is it matters very little in terms of its role in the region and its relation with other states and organizations in general. In a telling look into Iran’s ‘blame anyone but us’ worldview, Iran opened the conference with a call for reform at the United Nations:

“Six decades since its establishment, the United Nations needs fundamental reforms in order to adapt to the modern global developments,” said Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, according to the report. He added that “a more democratic Security Council” is needed.

Such rhetoric will surely be warmly welcomed by the attendees at the NAM Summit. Expansion of the Security Council has been a gripe that rising powers have had for the last several decades, backed by smaller countries and developing states alike.

But would a reformed Security Council change its tune on Iran? Not likely. In calling for reform, Tehran forgets its recent history. In 2010, the Security Council voted in favor of a fourth round of sanctions on Iran in Resolution 1929. These sanctions were the toughest yet leveraged against the regime, including a ban on weapons imports and exports, and targeted sanctions against many high-level regime members.

Both China and Russia, erstwhile allies of Iran, voted in favor of this package, much to the theocracy’s chagrin. It is unlikely that an expanded Council would have voted otherwise, considering all five current Permanent Members voted in favor. Of the most likely additional Permanent Members (Japan, Brazil, Germany, India), Brazil was present on the Council that year and abstained on the resolution. This abstention, which it was joined in by Turkey, was less about support for Iran and its nuclear program than a Middle Power push to engage Iran outside the Council.

Iran fares no better in any of the other organs of the United Nations. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a member of the UN umbrella of agencies, has been expressing its concern over Iran’s nuclear program for years. It was the IAEA that first referred the Iranian situation to the Security Council in the first place back in 2006 and continues to offer up grim statements on the uncooperative nature of Iran towards IAEA verification programs.

The UN Human Rights Council, despite its reputation for coddling regimes such as Iran has appointed Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran. Ahmed Shaheed’s mandate was renewed in March 2012, but he has been denied access into the country thus far. He still manages to report regularly to the HRC on the troubling record that Iran continues to accrue, including suppression of civil liberties and summary executions.

No love is lost between the Secretariat and Iran, either. Much has been made of the diplomatic “tug of war” between the United States and Iran in whether Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon would attend the Summit or not. Though Iran supposed it won, and Ban has been derided for capitulating to Tehran, Iran will be getting more than it bargained for. Per the Spokesman of the Secretary-General, Ban will use the opportunity to be much more blunt with Iran than its leaders had in mind when insisting on his presence in Tehran:

“With respect to the Islamic Republic of  Iran, the Secretary-General will use the opportunity to convey the clear concerns and expectations of the international community on the issues for which cooperation and progress are urgent for both regional stability and the welfare of the Iranian people. These include Iran’s nuclear programme, terrorism, human rights and the crisis in Syria.”

Even in the most democratic of the UN’s organs, the General Assembly, Iran can’t seem to catch a break. In December, a resolution was tabled in the Assembly condemning Iran’s ongoing human rights abuses, as it has been for the last several years. This year’s version passed by a vote of eighty-nine in favor and thirty against. It can hardly be said that a reform of the General Assembly is among the list of demands by the members of the Non-Aligned Movement.

The United Nations often makes a great target for attack, no matter the state in question. Unfortunately for Iran, even should its calls for reform come to pass, they would be unlikely to change the fact that Iran is becoming more isolated than ever If anything, the need for Iran to stress so hard the few ties to the rest of the world it has left at the Non-Aligned Movement highlight the efficacy of the efforts of the West to get the label ‘pariah state’ to stick.

July 25, 2012

Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game in Syria

After a week of contentious debates, the United Nations Security Council barely managed to come up with language to renew the mandate of the UN Supervisory Mission in Syria (UNSMIS). The resolution that was approved unanimously is a shining example of the negotiations that often produce documents that appeal to the lowest common denominator. Its few brief paragraphs have UNSMIS continuing for a “final” 30 days, with the only chance for further extension coming from a positive report from the Secretary-General that violence has dropped and that the Security Council agrees with that assessment. So did the United Nations’ mission fail in Syria, like in several other ill-fated missions in the 1990s?

According to Herve Lasdous, the Under Secretary-General for Peacekeeping, over half of the three hundred observers assigned to UNSMIS have returned to their parent countries.  As the new leader of the Mission, Lt. General Babacar Gaye, took the reins from Lt. General Robert Mood of a significantly shrunken contingency, telling the press that he was taking over “in a very difficult situation”:

“During our last trip in Damascus… we witnessed some decrease in the violence, but unfortunately since that we had to suspend our activities,” he said.

“We are back with the hope that reason will prevail, that there will be in this tunnel some light that we can seize and obtain less violence,” he said.

“We have 30 days and around today 27 to go, so every opportunity will be seized to alleviate the suffering of the population. This is our main concern.”

Meanwhile, the violence in Syria continues to escalate; footage of a fixed-wing plane bombing Aleppo surfaced yesterday, a rarely utilized tactic in the regime’s toolbox in suppressing the uprising.

Resolution 2059 also suggested that UNSMIS take into consideration the suggestions put forward in the Secretary-General’s first report on the mission. In that report, the proposal was made to shift the priorities of UNSMIS’ observers from patrolling and attempting to observe a cease-fire that no longer exists to providing the good offices of the United Nations to allow for dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition. Such a shift would maximize the efforts of the remaining blue berets in Damascus, while providing a focal point for continuing diplomatic efforts. Unfortunately, the mission only has enough time to successfully wind down, rather than being able to affect any further change.

So what to take from the about face in Syria? Many will leap to the conclusion that the United Nations is useless, confirming their previous biases towards the institution. Disagreement came from a surprising avenue, in the form of a post by Richard Grenell, former spokesman for the US Mission to the UN during the presidency of George W. Bush, in The Huffington Post on Friday. In his piece, Grenell lays the blame for the failure in the Council at the feet of Russia, claiming that China was merely following Russia’s lead, not on the body itself which actually had the votes to pass the measure. While I disagree the rest of his analysis, which blames the Obama Administration for a lack of a tough policy towards Russia, Grenell’s point that the failure comes not from the body, but two members, stands.

The fact is that after over a year of diplomatic wrangling, it has become clear that barring a mass defection of leadership from the regime, the only way the needle moves on Syria is through a changing of the rules on the ground. Right now, the rules of the game in Syria are as follows:

    • Armed intervention on either side will significantly shift the balance of power;
    • States are unwilling to directly intervene at this time, but will provide arms and funds to either side;
    • Negotiation is seen as a failure by both sides in Syria until such a time that their respective fighters alter the current dynamic

The insertion of UNSMIS into the ring was never significantly likely to affect these rules, not without cooperation from both sides of the conflict. UNSMIS’ goals, and the Annan Plan that they flowed from, were built on the premise that key players would accede to the necessity of a peaceful solution, a premise that faltered quickly. As it stands, the key players now are those actually doing the fighting and those who are providing the material support for that fighting. UNSMIS only falls into a third category, those facilitating diplomacy, preventing it from having the leverage necessary to affect the first two so long as its mandate is limited to observation and reporting.

In the same vein, the expansion of its mandate to include armed defenders would have more closely mirrored the 1990s, when ill-equipped and under-prepared “peacekeepers” were thrust into the middle of hot wars. Even with a Chapter VII-backed mandate, it is unlikely that UNSMIS would have been able to use enough force to avoid Syrian blockades of areas where massacres may have occurred or operate aircraft freely for travel about the country. Rules of Engagement for an expanded mission would be notoriously hard to draft as well; whether UNSMIS would use armed vehicles to avoid civilian attempts to prevent observation is just one of the questions that would have to be answered.  The decision to pull back from a full-scale civil war is a right one.

Overall, the game has just been fundamentally weighed against the UNSMIS since its inception. Prior to the second resolution vetoed by the Russian Federation and China, there was still a glimmer of a chance that the opposition could be convinced that violence was not the means to the ends they wanted. By the time UNSMIS was approved for deployment in Syria, violence was already at the point that their mandate was virtually impossible to fulfill. Despite the difficulties they faced, the observers of UNSMIS pushed forward for as long as they could before their own lack of defense mechanisms forced them to retreat. An observer force just wasn’t the appropriate tool to be used in Syria. Their withdrawal from Syria marks not a defeat of the mission, but an acquiescence to the realities that the mission faced.

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June 27, 2012

The Group of (X) is the Future of Multilateralism. Solve for X

After an unplanned descent into wearying illness, I find myself severely behind on the times. The month of June has been anything but slow at Turtle Bay and beyond, with multiple global flare-ups that I’ve wanted to cover. I plan on getting to most of those in due time, but for now, I want to take a look at a much the past few weeks from a much broader perspective. Further, I’d like to thank Sean Langberg for provoking this train of thought to the forefront of my mind at his excellent new blog.

The first week of June was spent, while simultaneously fighting off sickness, taking part in an annual event known as the G8 & G20 Youth Summits, as part of the American Delegation. There I was joined by peers from around the world, representing each of the states of the G20, and the European Union. Over the course of a week, I and seven others sequestered ourselves in a room in DC to discuss our various homeland’s opinion of issues of international law, and eventually hammered out a joint agreement of principles.

Serving as an undercurrent throughout the experience was the question of what purpose the various “Group of” bodies serve in the international sphere. The common consensus among those states from the G8 states was that smaller collaborations were the key to breaking through problems. Those from the wider G20 clearly believed that only greater representation at the table among those affected by decisions would prove effective in the long run. Both rolled their eyes at the inability of the United Nations to get anything done.

Their point seemed to be proven when the United Nations hosted the Rio+20 sustainable development summit on the 20th anniversary of the Rio Conference that fully launched the environmental movement among the international community. The conference failed to produce either the sweeping, binding commitments towards a green future that only the extremely optimistic had thought stood a chance, or any sort of new path forward at all.

And yet at the actual G8 and G20 summits, held weeks apart Camp David and in Mexico, there were also extremely few tangible outcomes at either. The hoped for breakthrough on Syria between the US and Russia failed to materialize, and those G20 states of the Global South can’t have been pleased with the excessive focus Europe received during Mexico. Both the G20 and Rio have been panned heavily for having too much in expectations and not enough in results, which begs the question: what good is having a seat at the table if nothing gets done still? And is there a model that’s able to actually live up to the pressures placed on it?

As a point of comparison between the two systems, one loose and one structured, the former is actually the older invention, dating back to before the Concert of Europe. The intergovernmental organization (IGO), with its state-based membership, governance by treaty, and dedicated set of civil servants working to serve the organization, above the fray of governments, is the younger on the international scene at almost two centuries old. Born of a novel approach to settling disputes over navigation in 1815, the Central Commission for Navigation on the Rhine was the first to embody these ideals.

The idea was run with in the creation of the International Telegraph Union and found its calling in the League of Nations, seen by the last vestiges of the 19th century’s style of diplomacy as the hope for the future. Despite the failures of the League, this model has served as the basis for a wide range of IGOs, from the United Nations to NATO to relative newcomers such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Indeed, it’s striking that the last of these chose to follow in the footsteps of past organizations in its structure, considering the very Western history of the arrangement.

Despite the rise of formal IGOs, the determination of whether to have looser ties or more permanent structures is still fluid and based strongly on the preference of the states that make up the group and the purposes it seeks such a united front. For example, the age of decolonization saw the rise of the Group of 77, the confederation of developing states inside the United Nations that pushes the South’s agenda. Even this group, whose numbers now include 138 states, made sure to draw up a binding Charter at its founding, though eschewing forming a Secretariat.

This ambiguity is absent in the ad-Hoc “contact groups” that spring up around hot spots in international affairs. The 1990s saw the establishment of the Contact Group on the Balkans, whose influence lasted well into the Kosovo crisis. As the Arab Spring turned on Muammar Qaddafi, the Friends of Libya was established to coordinate an international response. And today, Kofi Annan announced that he is set to host a new “Action Group” on Syria this Friday in Geneva, the first confab at which China and Russia have agreed to attend. And yet even these very focused confluences find it difficult to achieve tangible goals or even aligned policies.

Paradoxically, as the world grows more closely interconnected, the states who have the power to affect wide-reaching change rely on each other for more things and are thus loathe to break ties or stress points at the expense of others. From climate change to counter-terrorism to human rights, the list of matters that link states inextricably seems to be growing, with attempts at prioritization among the US and its allies seemingly nonexistent, especially when compared to the comparative focus of China and Russia, who are more able to work via status quo arrangements. This inability to find points of consensus may be a less of a systemic issue and more of a strategic failure on the point of states, but is a reality nonetheless.

So how will things actually happen and move forward with all this gridlock? Surprisingly enough, Rio+20 may have the answer to that question. While various groups have panned the end result of the Rio Conference, as Mark Goldberg points out, what is almost more important is what happened on the sidelines. Various commitments and initiatives were undertaken and launched between the public and private sectors on the edges of Rio. Smaller NGOS and entrepreneurs like Uncharted Play were able to gain exposure they never would have to various power holders, be they government officials or representatives of larger corporations. It turns out things got done in Rio, just between people, not states.

This isn’t to make the mistake of claiming that states aren’t important as we progress; as the continuing primary actors in the international sphere, their action or inaction carries the most weight. However, the secondary and tertiary actors in the forms of international corporations and organizations of civilians have the ability to work around states at times to promote their own ideals and goals. The downsides of this, such as gathering of power by largely unaccountable corporations, are apparent, but the chance for positive influence being pushed upon decision-makers within governments can’t be ignored.

What’s more, states still require forums for leaders and representatives to come together to discuss issues that affect the interests of each and all. Open dialogue and communication of interests and red-lines are among the most under appreciated factors that allows for peace between states. Instances in history where states have tried to keep their neighbors or adversaries guessing, as Eisenhower did in the 50s with China, tend to backfire due to overreaction on either side. The United Nations Security Council, while also the target of efforts to have it expand its circle of Great Power states, constantly proves its worth by providing the only forum for the Permanent Five states to air their grievances and concerns related to their security to each other on a regular basis.

The international community and its various ills are too dynamic to have the luxury of a one-size fits all model of multilateralism. Some issues, such as tackling long-term poverty and hunger, require the permanent efforts of bodies such at the United Nations, a Group of 193. Some, like countering violent upheavals in the financial systems of the world, require the intervention of the Group of 20.  Others will require the United States and China to sit down as a Group of 2 to work out issues bilaterally. And still others will require the citizenry of the world to attempt to work together in whatever ways possible as a Group of 7 Billion. In attempting to solve the problem of which permutation of states will best be able to save the world, we may just find that the answer is limitless.

May 25, 2012

There’s a Fine, Fine Line

The Annan Plan just can’t seem to catch a break. In the several weeks since the launch of the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), the lack of a corresponding cessation of violence has caused many to question the viability of the mission, and in turn the role that Mr. Annan is playing in seeking a peaceful outcome. The first report of the Secretary-General to the Security Council on UNSMIS’ progress was due to the Council on Thursday; its release has been delayed, though the reason behind the delay has yet to be revealed. When it is released*, however, it is doubtful that much good news will be put forward, leading to the question “When do you call it quits?”

Highlighting the dire straits that Syria still finds itself in, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry for Syria released an update to its last report yesterday. The picture it paints is one where grave human rights violations are ongoing, with the state’s atrocities still the overwhelming majority of those committed, but the opposition is gaining as their resistance turns ever more violent. Bombings remain targeted solely at government and military targets, but whether that will continue is yet to be seen. Aaron Zelin describes the jihadi nature of many of these bombings, noting that are outside the control the Free Syrian Army.

It is in this context that UNSMIS is attempting to operate under its Security Council mandate, and Mr. Annan seeks to unite a divided opposition before talks can even begin with the government. The issues that UNSMIS are facing, and the uniqueness of its mission, are expertly laid out by Arthur Boutellis of IPI’s Global Observatory:

• The conflict opposes the Syrian state to a multifaceted “Syrian opposition,” with no clear ceasefire line to observe, and combats taking place in urban areas;

• The fact that UN observers are being used to make the ceasefire stick rather than to observe a ceasefire that had already taken hold;

• Some of the acts of violence–such as bomb explosions–are not easily attributable to one side or the other without specialized investigative capacities;

• The presence of a “third element” –other than government forces and opposition–possibly Al Qaeda-affiliated spoilers, complicates the dynamics of the conflict and represents a direct threat to the UN observers;

• The limited consent to the UN presence by the Syrian host government—also a party to the conflict—is a serious limitation to its access and hence to its effectiveness (it is still opposing UN helicopters, for example).

These issues are all true and especially daunting for a mission that is being undertaken without a Chapter VII mandate to back it. That adds one further complication to the task that UNSMIS has been given: public perception. Observer Missions fall outside of the norm of peacekeeping that has been seen most frequently since 1991, particularly high-profile missions such as MONUSCO and UNOCI, or failed missions such as those in the Balkans and Rwanda. Those missions all have or had some form of a method for ensuring compliance with the demands of the Security Council or the terms of the peace deal that has been put into place, or at least some built-in self-defense mechanism. Their role is easily recognized as being one of action, rather than the more passive role observing requires.

As such, the deployment of a United Nations mission whose sole purpose is to act as a non-biased viewer of events, rather than an actor, immediately disappoints those who would like to see a stronger role taken in pushing for peace. Even those actions mandated of UNSMIS, like mediating between opposition group members, are not easily viewed and understood by the general public, particularly audiences in the West and greater Middle East alike who remain confused as to why more isn’t being done to end the violence in Syria. Merely reporting on the atrocities falls far short of the envisioned goal of ending them all together than activists are willing to find acceptable, leaving UNSMIS at a disadvantage on all sides.

All this pressure adds up, as the United States and Russia, neither of which were fans of the Annan Plan from the beginning, have already begun staking out positions to blame anyone but them should the plan collapse. Russia is looking to cast the opposition as participating with terrorists, while the United States may just declare that its skepticism has been in the right all along. Even Richard Gowan, by no means a naysayer when it comes to the UN, is exploring ways that Annan could save face from a failure of his eponymous plan, up to and including a strategic pause in his efforts.

The problem that many have had with calls for UNSMIS to withdraw, or for the Annan Plan to be put on ice, is that there is currently no viable alternative that doesn’t involve an escalation in violence in some shape or form. However, the chance that this may be the case whether there’s a plan to counter it or not seems to be growing by the day. Already, the tensions of Syria, and the demand for weapons the conflict is producing, are spilling over into Lebanon, destabilizing the security of a state whose fate has long been tied to Syria’s. And while the presence of observers brings down the level of violence of cities they are visiting, there is no way for enough blue berets to be deployed to achieve this effect across the country, not when IEDs still explode near UNSMIS convoys.

There is no easy way to determine that a bid for peace has died, as it goes against the very idea of international diplomacy and mediation as a preventative mechanism. However, this may go down in history as having been a political intervention at a stage in which the ability of reconciliation between the parties had long since passed, making preventative goals impossible to achieve. Delays in an agreement between the Great Powers on how to handle Syria allowed non-violent protestors to determine that raising arms was the only way to affect change, thus shifting the goal posts before Annan had even been brought in.

The line between chance of success and failure is a fine one in this case. It may turn out to have already been crossed in this case, leaving UNSMIS going through the motions until its mandate ends in late July, or the Council overturns Annan’s mandate. The Security Council for now seems content to give Annan the leeway to pull the plug on his own plan, and should continue to do so as long as a glimmer of hope remains. Save a miraculous breakthrough, however, the chance that UNSMIS be judged to have not crossed that line at the end of 90 days is thinner than the line itself.

*EDIT: Since publication of this blog post, the report has been leaked in its entirety. It’s about as was expected.

May 23, 2012

Crying UNCLOS

Hearings finally opened today in Senator John Kerry’s push to get the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before year’s end. The onslaught by Kerry comes as significant pushback is still being registered by his Republican counterparts, and calls that the trea-

I have to pause at this point to note that this is my no less than fifth attempt to write substantively about UNCLOS and its importance to the United States to ratify. I will further note that I don’t believe that I’ll be able to finish this post as intended. For me to actually be able to write about UNCLOS and the specific effects non-ratification would have on the United States, I would have to read the thing. And that is something that I just cannot do. Not for you, not for my love of the UN, not without serious bodily harm as a consequence for my not studying the text.

What is preventing me from reading the treaty? The Convention on the Law of the Sea is composed of seventeen parts. Which are in turn composed of three hundred and twenty articles. Nine annexes are also included within the Convention. Within that tome of international legalese, it finds rooms to preemptively settle scores of disputes that would likely arise between the various sea-going nations, ranging from matters of determining the Exclusive Economic Zone of each state to freedom of movement for armed vessels. Over 160 nations have so far signed on to and ratified the Convention, leaving the United States on the outside looking in, and me unable to look at the words “Law of the Sea” without my eyes glazing over.

Luckily for me, it’s not my job to read this overlong treaty. And it isn’t even the job of the Senators who will be hopefully voting on the treaty in the near future. Instead, that task likely falls to their various Legislative Directors and Assistants. I do not envy them at this juncture. But judging from the resistance that is being registered by certain Republicans, those staffers haven’t read the documents all that well themselves. As Mark Goldberg puts it in his back of the envelope whip count, this should be low-hanging fruit, but instead stands a solid chance of not reaching the 2/3rds majority required for ratifications.

So I give up. Rather than try to explain the scope and breadth of why the US should join UNCLOS myself, and I’ll let Secretary of State Hillary Clinton go to town on why opponents are mistaken in their resistance to the treaty:

Are there any serious drawbacks to joining this Convention? Opponents of the treaty believe there are, but they are mistaken. Some critics assert that joining the Convention would impinge upon U.S. sovereignty. On the contrary, joining the Convention will increase and strengthen our sovereignty. The Convention secures the United States an expansive exclusive economic zone and extended continental shelf, with vast resources in each. U.S. accession would lock-in our rights to all of this maritime space.

Some say that the Convention’s dispute resolution provisions are not in the U.S. interest. On the contrary, these procedures – which the United States sought – help protect rather than harm U.S. interests. As in many other treaties, including free trade agreements, such procedures provide the United States with an important tool to help ensure that other countries live up to their obligations. And U.S. military activities will never be subject to any form of dispute resolution.

Other critics have suggested that the Convention gives the United Nations the authority to levy some kind of global tax. This is also untrue. There are no taxes on any individuals, corporations, or anyone else under the Convention.

And Secretary of Defense Leon Panneta on the national security benefits of acceding to UNCLOS:

By not acceding to the Convention, we give up the strongest legal footing for our [navy’s] actions. We undercut our credibility in a number of Asia-focused multilateral venues – just as we’re pushing for a rules-based order in the region and the peaceful resolution of maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea and elsewhere. How can we argue that other nations must abide by international rules when we haven’t joined the treaty that codifies those rules?

At the other end of this arc sits the Strait of Hormuz, a vital sea lane of communication to us and our partners. We are determined to preserve freedom of transit there despite Iranian threats to impose a blockade. U.S. accession to the Convention would help strengthen worldwide transit passage rights under international law and help to further isolate Iran as one of the few remaining non-parties to the Convention.

 These are the key reasons for accession, which is critical to our sovereignty and our national security. That is why I fail to understand the arguments opposed to the treaty.

And Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey on the military’s ongoing desire to join UNCLOS:

The United States is a maritime nation—militarily and economically. We have the world’s largest Exclusive Economic Zone and the world’s largest and most capable navy. We stand to benefit from the additional legal certainty and public order this treaty would provide. Moreover, this certainty will become increasingly important as the global security environment becomes more competitive and more complex.

From the beginning, U.S. negotiators have been involved in the development of the Convention and have ensured it would both serve and protect our interests. Not joining the Convention limits our ability to shape its implementation and interpretation. We will need that influence if we intend to continue to lead in global maritime affairs.

Now is the time for the United States to join the Convention. We should not wait. The global security environment is changing. The Pacific and the Arctic are becoming increasingly important. And some nations appear increasingly willing to assert themselves and to push the boundaries of custom and tradition in a negative direction.

And Robert Stevens, CEO of Lockheed Martin on the economic importance that the US ratifies the Convention:

Ratification is now critical to the important U.S. economic and national security interests advanced by access to the vast mineral and rare earth metals resources on the ocean floor. These mineral resources are vital to a wide array of defense and high-tech manufacturing products and systems – computers, mobile phones, lasers, aircraft engines, specialty glass, and missile guidance systems are just a few of the many products that contain rare earth metals. Considerable financial investment is required to access these mineral reserves and ensure that the U.S. has a reliable long-term source of supply that cannot be interrupted, monopolized, or otherwise controlled by foreign governments. That investment is only going to be secured for rights clearly recognized and protected within the established treaty-based framework.

This isn’t a case of liberal internationalism run amuck, or idealism in the face of harsh realities. Rather, the need for the United States to become a Party to the Convention on the Law of the Sea has been voiced by the White House continuously since the Reagan Administration, with support from the Armed Forces and the private sector. The only thing standing in the way for over thirty years has been the willful stubbornness of the United States Senate. A hard-fought battle to get many of the United States demands met in the 1994 Agreement didn’t manage to dislodge the Convention then, so maybe Senator John McCain’s promised amendments will bring the votes of those Senators with reservations. In any case, I’ll gladly support the Chairman Kerry in his push to finally get this treaty out of the Senate. Just don’t ask me to read the thing.