Archive for ‘UN Security Council’

August 28, 2013

No, “The UN” Didn’t Blame Chemical Attacks On Syria’s Rebels

So for the past couple of days, there’s been a bit of a hullaballoo over just what on earth the United States is finally going to do in Syria. All signs — despite Obama insisting that he hasn’t made a decision yet — point towards a set of missile strike against what I can only assume is the Pentagon’s idea of Syria’s soft underbelly with no real follow through.

At what is in my opinion to tangential a point in this discussion is the role that the United Nations is playing in the matter, given its position as arbiter of international peace and security. At least, that it’s role under international law, a fact that the U.S. is not too pleased with given Russia’s continuing efforts to stymy any Security Council-blessed use of force in Syria.

There’s also the matter of the team of U.N. weapons inspectors currently on the ground. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has said that it will take another four days for them to finish their work, with the British now urging the U.S. to not take action until their findings are presented. Syria appears to have had a change of heart now as wants them to stay for a longer period, with U.N. Ambassador Ja’afari claiming that they have handed over evidence that the rebels are at fault for a series of chemical attacks. Ja’afari’s pleas aren’t entirely convincing, though, given the months of negotiations over access Damascus strung out with Turtle Bay, and the extremely limited scope that resulted, but I digress.

In the midst of all of this, there’s been a resurgence of articles — both at various smaller outlets and some as large as Russia Today — making the claim that the United Nations has blamed the rebels for the chemical weapons attacks. This assignment of fault, the argument goes, is being covered up to allow the warmongering Obama administration launch as many missiles as it wants at Damascus because…reasons.

The evidence presented for this belief that the U.N. has ruled against the Syrian rebels? A statement from Carla De Ponte, a member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic since September of last year. Launched by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2011, the Commission has proved an invaluable tool in gathering the stories of refugees and defetctors of the horrors witnessed within Syria’s borders over the course of the conflict.

When conducting an interview with Swiss television in May, however, Del Ponte made a surprising announcement about the work she and her colleagues were performing:

“Our investigators have been interviewing victims, doctors and field hospitals. According to their report of last week, which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated. I was a little bit stupefied by the first indications we got … they were about the use of nerve gas by the opposition.”

It’s those comments that had many on the blogosphere declaring that the U.N. official had accidentally told the truth and today claims that the world body has found the government non-culpable for the attack last week. Or if they did carry it out, that means that the international community should also be planning to attack the rebels for carrying out the March attack.

Unfortunately for them, the definitive nature of their story falls apart at several points. First and foremost, at no time does Del Ponte say with absolute certainty that it was the opposition who used chemical weapons against Syrian government forces. In fact, she doesn’t even say for sure that sarin gas or any other weapons were used, only that there were at the time “strong, concrete suspicions.”

Next is the fact that Del Ponte is but one member of a Commission that the U.N. has sponsored. She was not speaking for the Commission during the interview, a role that usually falls solely to the Chair. In this case, that would be Paulo Pinherio — who did not at any time confirm Del Ponte’s statement. And she certainly wasn’t speaking for the United Nations system as a whole.

In fact, in the days after her interview, the commission put out a press release walking back the majority of her points:

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic wishes to clarify that it has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any parties to the conflict. As a result, the Commission is not in a position to comment on teh allegations at this time.

The Chair of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Sergio Pinherio, reminds all parties to the conflict that the use of chemical weapons is prohibited in all circumstances under customary international humanitarian law.

In line with its mandate, the Commission is currently investigating all allegations of violations of international law in the Syrian Arab Republic and will issue its findings to teh Human Rights Council on 3 June, 2013, as mandated by resolution 22.24.

When the third of June rolled around, Pinherio reported to the Human Rights Council as promised, but did not lay the blame on the shoulders of the rebels, or Assad, or conclude for sure that chemical weapons were used in the first place:

137. The Government has in its possession a number of chemical weapons. THe dangers extend beyond the use of the weapons by the Government itself to the control of such weapons in the event of either fractured command or any of the affiliated forces gaining access.

138. Anti-government armed groups could gain access to and use chemical weapons. This includes nerve agents, though there is no compelling evidence that these groups possess such weapons or their requisite delivery systems.

139. Allegations were received concerning the use of chemical weapons by both parties. The majority concern their use by government forces. […] It has not been possible, on the evidence available, to determine the precise chemical agents, their delivery systems, or the perpetrator.

In truth, the U.N. has been exceptionally determined to avoid assigning blame for the use of chemical weapons, going so far as to either agree or offer to not include having its team of weapons inspectors even able to make such a determination. Instead, as I explained at ThinkProgress, they are only present within Syria to determine whether chemical agents were unleashed against the population at all.

So far, the Obama administration has played its information close to the chest, stating that they would be issuing declassified versions of the intelligence it’s gathered in the near future. Congress has yet to even be fully briefed, so I certainly don’t know the contents of it. And for all I know, Del Ponte may have been right in saying that there was evidence at the time that it was rebels who used sarin gas.

That, however, still doesn’t mean that there’s any real accuracy in making the claim that the United Nations itself has assigned blame in the matter. So to say that “the U.N.” has said the rebels cast the first stone regarding chemical weapons is simply false.

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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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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.

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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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 15, 2012

Does Size Really Matter?: The S5 and Security Council Reform

The United Nations has been a dual-track system since its birth. Out of the ashes of the Second World War, those subjugated demanded a world where true equality of nations was held paramount. Meanwhile, the victors who shouldered most of the burden during the past six years required a post-war system where their security needs were held paramount. The Charter of the United Nations reflects that uneasy balance, one that has been challenged since before the ink was dry on the recommendations of the Dumbarton Conference in 1944.

This discord, the push and pull between the General Assembly’s notion of equality and the special prerogatives granted to the UN Security Council, has cropped up many times over the last six decades. The most recent confrontation has the mighty Permanent Five taking on…the Small Five. The Small Five, or S5, is composed of Jordan, Costa Rica, Lichtenstein, Singapore, and Switzerland and have come out swinging against the lack of transparency among the members of the Security Council. Their efforts have been chronicled by Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch (after a fruitless attempt to pull together more information myself several weeks ago).

Despite the attempts of the P5 to keep the S5 from pressing forward with their draft resolution to further open up the processes of the Council, a vote of the full General Assembly is scheduled to take place tomorrow. According to the Swiss Mission, the draft is likely to receive a ringing endorsement from the Assembly. Considering the majority of the proposals contained in the draft, this isn’t a huge surprise. In all, the draft can be seen less in the context of the large states versus the small, as framed by Lynch, but as the continuation of an ongoing battle for political standing within the United Nations structure between the Council and the General Assembly, and in turn the Global North and Global South.

When the United Nations first came into session, it was assumed that the General Assembly would remain on equal footing with the Security Council, given the broad swath of issues under its purview via the Charter. As the membership of the Assembly and the UN as a whole expanded during the years of decolonization, however, the importance of the Assembly began to paradoxically shrink. The weight granted to it by the United States in the face of Soviet obstinacy in the Security Council during the 1950s had become too much of a liability with the large influx of post-colonial states. The General Assembly took on a position more and more in line with the principles of the Global South, from whence the vast majority of its members hailed. This was the face of the United Nations presented for the majority of its existence, as the US and USSR deadlocked the Council on the majority of major security issues.

After the thaw of the Cold War in the early 1990s, a resurgent Council leapt back into the fray, wielding its considerable authority under Chapters V, VI, and VII of the Charter with greater force, and use of force, than at any point in history. This return to form knocked the General Assembly from its pedestal, and onto the back-burner of the more pressing issues of international peace and security. Since then, a renewed clamor has sprung up surrounding the need for widespread reform of the Council, which had waxed and waned since the last major expansion of the Council in 19 63.

As noted in Lynch’s article, however, there is dissent among those states outside of the P-5 on how to best achieve that reform as “another bloc of countries, known as the Uniting for Consensus group, which includes countries like Italy, Pakistan, and Argentina, also oppose a vote — saying that it would distract from efforts to negotiate an enlargement of the Security Council”. What makes their dissent unsurprising in the context of a struggle between the GA and UNSC, is that the Uniting for Consensus group was first established in opposition to the Group of Four (Germany, Brazil, India, and Japan). Each member of the G4 has a counterpart in the Uniting for Consensus group seeking to prevent them from attaining a new form of regional hegemony. In short, the dissent among GA members is comparable to lower-income Americans being against raising taxes on the wealthy, in the hopes that they’ll one day join the ranks of the latter. Reformation of the Council to add in new seats requires amending the Charter, an act that is veto-able in the Security Council; it only makes sense for those who want to become permanent members themselves to have an interest in not offending the P5.

And so the S5 is pressing forward with their recommendations, the majority of which shift the balance of the Council’s functions to allow more participation by the states without seats. In particular, the issue of keeping peace is brought up several times throughout the annex, first in the context of providing a greater say for the chairs of the country-specific Peacebuilding Commissions during informal consultations of the Council. The inclusion of the Peacebuilding Commission chairs would indeed foster a more cohesive practice when it comes to developing missions and deployments to the countries in question. Such consultations would be particularly welcome in states like Guinea-Bissau that relapse into conflict. However, the informal consultations of the Council were first developed precisely so that no outsiders would be privy to the discussions; formal meetings of the Council are open to the public, and thus the informal consultation was developed to hash out positions and engage in the sausage-making of diplomacy outside of the limelight. In the current set-up any leak can be attributed to one of fifteen missions; accepting more players to the game increases the likelihood of spillage of private words in the eyes of Council members.

Likewise, the draft calls for more participation in informal meetings by those states who have contributed police officers or troops to peacekeeping missions. Such a proposal would be in line with the spirit of the Charter, if not the letter. Chapter VII, Article 43 called upon Member States to make available a negotiated number of armed forces to the UN Security Council at all times. Article 44 then gave those Member States a seat at the table in discussing just how those forces would be used. Without the implementation of Article 43, Article 44 became a moot point, which carried over into the usage of volunteered forces in modern-day peacekeeping and peace-enforcing missions. However, the stigma against outsiders still pervades.

The S5 should be well aware of the difficulties that enacting such changes in the working practices of the Security Council would bring, for two reasons. First, they have had some successes in the past in having the Council become more open in its deliberations. Second, as seen in the Chart below, three of the members of the S5 have served on the Security Council, two of them within the last decade.

Country Years Served
Costa Rica 1974-1975 1997-1998 2008-2009
Jordan 1965-1966 1982-1983 X
Lichtenstein X X X
Singapore 2001-2002 X X
Switzerland X X X

They must thus be well aware of the jealousy with which the Security Council guards its ability to set its own rules. The Council is so devoted to ensuring that its rules never change, that they have been operating under their Provisional Rules since 1945; the set has never come to a vote for fear that they would be forced to change. And as United Kingdom Ambassador Sir Mark Lyall Grant stated, the ability of the Council to set their own rules is enshrined in Article V of the Charter.

The above provisions are likely to be begrudgingly supported, though, should they pass overwhelmingly. Less likely to be acceded to are those in the final paragraphs, as they would shift the most autonomy away from the Council while granting the most oversight to the General Assembly:

19. Explaining the reasons for resorting to a veto or declaring its intention to do so, in particular with regard to its consistency with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and applicable international law. A copy of the explanation should be circulated as a separate Security Council document to all Members of the Organization.

20. Refraining from using a veto to block Council action aimed at preventing or ending genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

21. Establishing a practice, in appropriate cases, of declaring, when casting a negative vote on a draft resolution before the Council, that such a negative vote shall not constitute a veto in the sense of Article 27, paragraph 3, of the Charter.

The sole reason the United Soviet Social Republic was persuaded to join the United Nations was the assurance of its veto power in the Council. As I’ve stated before, while ugly, its uses are in fact in line with international law, as the Charter stands above near all international law. Dealing with the actual proposals themselves, the last point is easily explained away as a rephrasing of the principle of the abstention. While technically not a vote in favor as described under Chapter V of the Charter, abstentions have long since come to be accepted as an appropriate way for a Permanent Member to express dissent with the current text of a resolution without exercising the veto.

The other two are much trickier to handle in a way that would both do credit to the spirit of the request and protect the privileges of the Permanent Five. An option that could be taken, should this resolution pass, is in the first instance to give the Assembly too much of a good thing. I’m certain that, for example, should the United States feel the need to veto yet another resolution on Israel, that it could produce a tome of a document for the General Assembly, which nobody will read. Or, barring that, deliver a single paragraph of reasons behind the vote. The suggestion is vague at best, and unlikely to constrain the threat of veto by Permanent Members, let alone the actual usage.

The case remains strongest for the second of the three suggestions, which recommends that the veto not be used in the instance of a draft tabled dealing with genocide or mass atrocities. While normally the United States and the other Western members of the P5 would be in favor of such a suggestion, the inclusion of it with other recommendations dilutes its purpose and causes them to stand in lockstep with Russia and China over protecting their right under the Charter. While the attempt to produce political pressure on the Council is indeed admirable, it is unfortunate that this paragraph will ultimately be ignored by the Council.

The General Assembly and the Security Council are two sides of the same coin in international affairs. On the one side, you have the ideal state of being, where all states are equal in their sovereignty and their role in international affairs. On the latter, you have a much more realist view, with strong states doing as they will, and weak states doing as they must. The struggle for the United Nations between these two competing ideas is unlikely to be solved by this draft resolution. The S5, acting as the proxy of the General Assembly, aren’t the Lilliputians that they’re pegged to be. But in this instance it’s the Security Council that will most certainly refuse to be tied down.