Posts tagged ‘general assembly’

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.

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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.

April 11, 2012

Keep Your Enemies Close: Syria and the UN General Assembly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 18, 2012

Uniting for Syria? Not in the General Assembly

The tenth anniversary of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine has prompted several reflections, including the The Stanley Foundation’s R2P: The Next Decade Conference in New York City this week, examining the future of the concept. In doing so, it’s impossible to not have all eyes turn towards Syria, wondering what, if anything, is to be done to protect the civilian population from the Bashar al-Assad government’s rampage.

An idea that I saw tossed around on Twitter as I followed the debate was one that I hadn’t considered in-depth: using the Uniting for Peace concept, based

Uniting for Peace for Syria in the UNGA?

on UN General Assembly resolution 337 (A), to circumvent the deadlocked Security Council. I can see why the idea would have appeal; Russia introduced the third version of its draft resolution on Syria to the Council this week, a version that has rejected all of the suggestions by the Western powers as having “emasculated” the text.

Dodging the veto of Russia and China on a strong resolution on Syria in the General Assembly would be a dream come true for activists impassioned about Syria. And the General Assembly has previously come out against the regime, passing a resolution condemning Syria’s human rights abuses and compelling it to adhere to the Arab League’s provisions by a substantial margin. So why not bring up a new resolution, under the auspices of R2P and Uniting for Peace, to push for tough measures on Damascus?

Well, there are several reasons. The first of which is that there’s precisely no chance that the P-3 of note in the above tweet, the United States, United Kingdom, and France, would support such a move. All three have come out against the Assad government’s violence and all three have said that he needs to step down from ruling Syria. However, all three value their power in the United Nations Security Council far more. The circumvention of the veto-power is a touchy subject for these three states.

This is the very reason why you don’t see the Uniting for Peace option used as much as it was when first introduced. During the early 1950s, the vast majority of  the General Assembly was composed of states from Latin America and Europe, states that were close allies of the United States. This was only fitting as the UN started out as a war-time alliance. As decolonization swept the globe, however, and more new states from Africa and Asia joined the Assembly, the US lost its strong majority, and with it its ability to easily pass any action it wanted through without a struggle.

Further, the concept is on shaky legal ground to begin with. The UN Charter does provide some small stake in the maintenance of international peace and security to the General Assembly, but the organ charged primarily with that function is the Security Council. The Assembly’s powers under Chapter IV are also phrased in such a way that compliance by member-states is not mandatory. Put another way, General Assembly resolutions are non-binding recommendations, unlike Council resolutions which carry the full weight of international law. To claim that any action taken under Uniting for Peace would be binding to states, including Syria, is counter to facts.

What’s more, any resolution tabled dealing with Syria as a breach of the Responsibility to Protect would necessarily be one dealing with international peace and security. Under Article 18 of the Charter, such matters are deemed an “Important Question” and require a two-thirds vote to pass. Depending on the severity of the provisions tabled, it is unlikely that two-thirds of the GA will be willing to vote for measures that would actually affect the situation on the ground in Syria. The two-thirds threshold would be particularly difficult to meet as the P-3 will surely be quietly working behind the scenes to keep a vote from coming to the floor to begin with.

Even if the Important Question provision is overcome, the fact remains that the resolution would still be entirely based on recommendations. As such, there would be no legally credible enforcement mechanism in place to compel those states that voted against the measures to enact them. In the event that even such moderate measures as an exact duplication of the embargoes placed on Damascus by the League of Arab States, there would be nothing stopping trade with Syria by states who want to. And as an arms embargo, of the type that would actually affect the Syrian governments ability to kill civilians, would be unenforceable, Russia can continue selling its wares unabated. No country’s navy is going to want to board a Russian ship in what may be an illegal embargo.

The idea was also breached that rather than shooting for strong measures, at the very least an Emergency Session of the General Assembly can be called under Uniting for Peace, to get the crisis in Syria under more urgent discussion. This would be a strong show of will by the international community, it could be argued, to show that Syria’s misdeeds are not going on unnoticed. The only problem is that without firm action to accompany such a session, it would be an empty victory. It would in fact be counter to the goals of the callers, as it would first show that the international community has no real plan of action towards Syria, which could prompt a surge in violence. An Emergency Session would, instead of showing resolve, cast the United Nations as weak and inept, surely the last thing the organization needs.

In situations like the one in Syria, it’s easy to ask “What can be done? Why is nothing being done?”, especially in the context of R2P. The United Nations in particular is being targeted as not moving swiftly enough to contain the crisis, but it’s easy to forget that the UN is, and always has been, a collection of member states. The General Assembly has acted strongly to condemn Syria, but it will not be the forum that will provide the end to violence there.

September 26, 2011

Syria Business: Syria’s FM Blames Everyone but Al-Assad for Syria’s Problems

As I was writing the last post, I realized I have a free couple of minutes to tune into the livestream of the UN General Debate. And who should be speaking, but the Foreign Minister of Syria, Mr. Walid Al-Moualem. This being too good an opportunity to miss, I decided to listen in.

Rather than dodging the issue, FM Al-Moualem decided to tackle his country’s current issues head-on.

“There is no doubt that the positions of states are governed by geopolitical realities and constraints and demands stemming there from,” he began, speaking of Syria’s role in the balance of politics, being in the very heart of the Middle East. This was all well and good, until he began to speak of Syria’s historic support of resistance movements. I suppose that those movements only count outside of Syria’s borders.

He went on to talk about Syria’s having extended the hand of friendship to all states and how it builds relations on mutual respect and interest. Mr. Al-Moualem then pivoted to speak on the occupation of Iraq, which “dragged us into another battle”, where they faced the choice of “siege and isolation or submitting to dictates”. They clearly chose the former.

Having properly framed the strength and bravery of the Al-Assad government, Mr. Moualem spoke of the internal issues as having two sides. On the one, the country needs the people driven political, economic and social reforms that the citizens of Syria have been calling for, and that President Assad has apparently championed. However, “political circumstances” forced internal demands to take a backseat to other priorities. It would seem that the “overriding priority” was “facing external pressures” that were “at time tantamount to blatant conspiracies”. This was followed up with another declaration that armed groups are currently sabotaging the Syrian protests and sowing seeds of insecurity as a pretext for foreign intervention. In what may have been my favorite part of the speech, Mr. Al-Moualem declared that Syria takes very seriously its responsibility to protect its citizens, and has acted to guarantee their safety and security from international intervention.

Syria’s FM went on to say that after President Al-Assad declared his reform measures in June, he introduced all sorts of Acts, allowing political pluralism, laying the groundwork for free and open media, and the potential for a new Constitution. He went on to claim that opposition figures have come together with the government to examine this reform package. This confuses me, as I’m pretty sure the Syrian opposition was barely able to agree on naming themselves the Syrian National Council, let alone enough of a plan of action to be able to meet with the government and negotiate reforms.

He then started talking more about the “other side of the coin”, calling out countries that spoke out about Syria in the General Debate for promoting defiance and incitement. In a wonderful leap of logic, Syria “deeply regret[s] the surge in the activities of armed groups…, which have not waned and instead continued to spiral”, which were declared to be “in tandem with multiple economic sanctions”. So the Syrian government kills more people the more it’s sanctioned, serving almost as a cryptic warning to the West. As a side note, nobody is saying that there has been absolutely no violence incited by the opposition; it’s just that violence in Syria is being carried out by on a scale several magnitudes by the Syrian government and army against the people compared to the reverse. In any case, by targeting the Syrian economy with sanctions, Mr. Al-Moualem stated, the United States and European Union jeopardize the basic subsistence needs of the Syrian people, which cannot be reconciled with concerns for the rights of the Syrian people. Concerns for the rights of the Syrian people being of the utmost priority, of course.

Towards the end is where it got really interesting, as the claim was put forward that the Al-Assad government has opted for a secular route as located Syria is located in an area of many religions. While I agree that it is in the cradle of the major religions, and that the Syrian people as whole seem to steer away from secular conflict, I have to say that the fact that Syria helps fund Hezbollah really undercuts the statement as a whole. Mr. Al-Moualem followed up by railing against the “financing and arming of religious extremism”. Seriously? There is not a pot/kettle analogy strong enough to be used here. This religious extremism is meant to spread Western hegemony and Israel’s expansionist needs. And the train has gone off the rails. He concluded by saying that the Syrian people will reject any intervention, and “will not let you implement your plans and will foil your schemes”, and thanked those countries that have “stood by [his] people”. Here’s looking at you, Brazil. Well played.

During his speech, Mr. Al-Moualem tried to hide behind the UN Charter, specifically Chapter I, Article 2, Section 7:

 Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter

This is a pretty common line of attack in the protection of national sovereignty against the responsibility to protect. However, everyone seems to forget the second part of Article 2(7):

 but this principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter VII.

The ball is quite clearly in the Security Council’s court as the arbiters of Chapter VII; it’s then imperative for the survival of the Syrian government that it continues its push to have the Libyan intervention viewed in a negative light by the current members of the Security Council. So long as the BRICS countries refuse to take action on Syria, the likelihood of Syria’s protests taking on a much more violent approach rises. I can only hope that in its example and in diplomatic pushes, that Turkey can convince some of its fellow middle/rising powers to take a much firmer stance on Syria.

September 26, 2011

The UN General Assembly…Abridged!: Or, Palestine, Palestine, Crazy, Hope, Palestine

So I may have overestimated the amount of time that my real-person job would cut into my blogging. It being the General Debate at the UN General Assembly, though, my loyal reader, singular, would not forgive me for not having at least something up. That, plus I realized that most bloggers DO have actual jobs and so excuses are for chumps, to use the common parlance.

General Debate in years past has often been better translated as “dictators give lengthy diatribes”. This year, though, has been different, though no less boring. The General Debate has, of course, been dominated by the Israeli-Palestinian debate, which despite the best efforts of the United States, has made its way to the horrendously carpeted floor of the General Assembly.

President Abbas received a hero’s welcome in Palestine after making what many called an historic speech. President Abbas theatrically waved about a copy of the official request for full membership that he earlier presented to Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. Theatricality aside, the members inside the General Assembly ate it up, offering President Abbas several standing ovations. This made for the rather awkward optics of seeing Ambassador Susan Rice and the rest of the United States delegation sitting sullenly while spontaneous cheers went up all around. I understand the United States’ position, even if I don’t agree with it fully, but from a purely international political point of view, stonewalling Abbas’ speech doesn’t particularly play well.

A few speakers later, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu took the rostrum of the GA, and put on a show of his own. As President Abbas was speaking to the people at home, so too was PM Netanyahu. His speech was well-delivered and full of what were intended to be laugh lines and clearly impromptu drop-ins; never let it be said that Bibi doesn’t give an impressive speech in perfect English. But it clearly wasn’t one for the delegates in the room. Rather, it was written and delivered to his right-wing at home in Israel and to Congressional Republicans in the United States. And he gave them everything that they wanted and more. Which is to say he gave a full-throated push for security matters to come above all else when dealing with a solution to the Palestinian statehood issue and wanting to prevent the West Bank from becoming another Gaza, the sort of red-meat that has Republicans giving their own standing ovations.

Bibi challenged President Abbas to meet with him immediately, with no preconditions, on the sidelines of the UN, but this was an offer that was never meant to be taken; Palestine refuses to return to the negotiating table until Israel ceases constructing settlements in the West Bank. The point became moot when the Quartet, made up of the US, European Union, Russia, and the United Nations issued a statement on restarting peace talks. The statement went over like a lead balloon, however, with Egypt speaking in their first post-Mubarak appearance at the UN and utterly eviscerating the proposal’s lack of timelines and conditions to restart talks.

So your guess is as good as mine where this goes from here. The United Nations Security Council has Lebanon as its President this month, and upon receiving the Palestinian application on Friday, the Council was set to have initial discussion of it this afternoon. There was talk that the Quartet’s statement would put this discussion on hold, but with nobody seeming to be fans of it, it would seem that Lebanon has gone ahead and added “Admission of New Members” to the Council’s agenda for today. So I’m sure we’ll hear more about this later.

The Israeli-Palestinian issue wasn’t all that was discussed, however, and there were a few shining moments that cut through. The first was the first speech to the General Assembly by the newest addition to the United Nations, South Sudan, the 193rd member. President Salva Kiir, wearing his fetching black cowboy hat as ever, spoke of his gratitude to the international community, the need for stable security, and the need to diversify the oil-based economy of South Sudan. If President Kiir manages to pull this off, South Sudan could serve as a model to oil-rich countries across the globe. And to link back to earlier in this post, this year marked the first in over forty years where Mommar Qaddafi has not been the voice of Libya. Instead, Mahmoud Jibril, Chairman of the National Transitional Council, spoke to the body. Not only was this a victory for the beleaguered translators on the second floor, but a success for there being one less dictator in the halls of the UN.

I would be remiss if I didn’t at least touch on President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad’s annual craziness at the GA, followed by the annual walk of any member-states who had stuck around thus far. Conspiracy theories abound as ever, including a fun little attack on the reality of September 11th. Mark Kornblau, USUN spokesman, put it as succinctly as possible in what may be the best press release ever:

Mr. Ahmadinejad had a chance to address his own people’s aspirations for freedom and dignity, but instead he again turned to abhorrent anti-Semitic slurs and despicable conspiracy theories.

Those were just the most entertaining parts that have gone on so far; many serious speeches and proposals for policies to uphold and fulfil the Millennium Development Goals and tap the potential of women were given among others. While more most certainly went on, I’ll leave some of the more choice tidbits for other posts, including one that I have queued up for right after this one goes live.

EDIT: Like I said, there’s an update to the UNSC Palestinian question. According to Dennis Fitz: “The UNSC met today & decided to meet again on Wed to decide whether to refer Palestine membership bid to admissions committee.” So there you go. There’s no veto on the Admissions Committee, but all 15 states have a representative on it. More information on Wednesday, but this means that tonight and tomorrow will be an all-out push by the Palestinians to get at least nine votes on the Council to be pledged to vote yes and by the US to get them to hold back. Either way, the move will fail even/especially if it moves out of the Admissions Committee, but it being via a failure to garner nine votes and a US veto are very different things indeed.

September 4, 2011

The Palestinian Question

The biggest fight on floor of the UN General Assembly this September is without a doubt going to be the Palestinian push for unilateral recognition of statehood. The whole thing has been fascinating to watch from an international institution standpoint, awful to watch from a US policy-making standpoint.

As the weeks have gone on, and its become crystal clear that the US will veto any full admission to the United Nations, as is their prerogative under the combination Articles 4 and 27 of the UN Charter, the Palestinians have come up with a somewhat ingenious backup plan. Currently the Palestinian Liberation Organization is recognized in the UN as the sole legitimate authority of the Palestinian people, and holds the seat of the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine, possessing the status of ‘observing non-member entity’. This is slightly below the place of the Vatican and formerly Switzerland, Japan and others, as an ‘observing non-member state’ and above other observers such as the European Union and other international organizations.

Should a full-bid for statehood fail at the hands of a US veto, originally consideration was given to taking up a Uniting for Peace resolution to override the Security Council when the UNSC is deadlocked. This would hold a particularly irony in the fact that the concept was first developed by the US in a time when it still controlled the GA. This was shot down by legal scholars who, accurately, stated that the matter of UN membership has a concrete mechanism built into the Charter.

What could be done instead would be to upgrade Palestine’s status from observer entity to that of an observer state. This would confer certain abilities that are currently outside the reach of their present status. Among these is the ability to join a multitude of UN bodies and treaties, as they can then point to their recognition as a state.

The real kicker  is the enhanced case it would give to push for an ability to bring Israeli citizens before the International Criminal Court. Under Article 14 of the Rome Statute, States party to the treaty may bring cases that fall under the jurisdiction of the Court forward. The key word there is “State”, something that the Palestinians have been lacking but may be able to argue for after September and allow them to sign the Rome Statute. This is Israel’s greatest fear in this situation; though they aren’t a party to the Court, they would be afraid to have officials travel anywhere save the United States and others who have thus far refused to sign on to the State. This fear may be somewhat misguided as we’ve seen somewhat lax enforcement of warrants issued by the ICC, but that’s for another post.

A friend who works on Israeli foreign policy did present me with an interesting point when it comes to other ramifications of a UN GA vote. Should Palestine become an independent state before having a true hold on their internal security, it could be even more of a disaster. Palestine’s greatest argument for independence in the past has been their status as the ‘Occupied Territories’, with the Israeli Defense Force providing a villain in the play. Should they become recognized as a state, this changes the dynamic considerably.

When the first missile flies between a Palestinian state and Israel, the Israelis can invoke Article 51 of the UN Charter. As Article 51 allows for actions to be taken in self-defense against the opposing state until the Security Council acts, and the US still has the ability to veto anything that comes before the Council, you could see a full on takedown of Palestine before it even gets its legs under it. That isn’t the wish of anyone but maybe the most hardcore of Israeli legislators as this scenario would not benefit any party. It would make the IDF look like bullies, again, and the Palestinians look incompetent, again, but Israel’s actions would be fully within the scope of international law.

This doomsday scenario aside, I find Israel’s reading of international law in this situation somewhat confusing and indeed hypocritical. The State of Israel is strongly objecting to the UN granting statehood to Palestine as a matter of not just policy but insisting that the power lies outside the scope of the UN Charter. Many other observers take the same stance, claiming that the UN General Assembly can’t create a state, including the Council on Foreign Relations’ Eliot Abrams:

That’s the rub, of course– it would. Indeed it might be even further away, if the main effect of their campaign were to delay serious negotiations and further alienate Israelis and Americans. For in the end, it isn’t just the UN Charter that tells us the General Assembly cannot create a Palestinian state. Reality teaches the same lesson.

That the PLO is following this path suggests a lack of interest in the genuine negotiations that are the only real path to statehood. This is not surprising at a moment when Palestinian attention is mostly focused on domestic politics–Fatah vs. Hamas–and the PLO’s leader, Mahmoud Abbas, has his sights set on retirement next year. It may yet be possible for the United States to come up with a form of words that brings the two parties to the negotiating table this summer and thereby allows Abbas to back away from the UN shenanigans. But this entire episode reveals a lack of Palestinian seriousness about negotiations and suggests that, while talks may commence and avoid the September UN confrontation, they will go nowhere. Like the talks the United States engineered in September 2010, such negotiations might start with hoopla and ceremony, but would most likely break down in the subsequent few months.

Correct me if I’m mistaking in remembering a little something called UN Resolution 181, which lay out the original boundaries for the Jewish State and Arab State as they are referred to. That resolution allowed for either the Jews or Arabs to sign onto the plan and have access to joining the UN, whether the other had approved or not. The Palestinians indeed did not accept the Resolution, leading to the civil war period that followed the Israeli Declaration of Independence. It’s within the UN’s power to, if not formally create a state, lay the groundwork to legitimacy that makes statehood possible.

The US is struggling frantically to delay the vote, pushing for renewed negotiations between Israel and Palestine rather than a unilateral push. The Quartet, never the greatest mechanism for moving peace forward, has yet to finalize their new peace plan, but is actually moving forward, something that has to be applauded. The Israelis have lent their support to a new draft but only silence has come from the Palestinians. A new set of concrete proposals designed to spur talks is something that has been lacking for far too long, but it may be too little too late.

The stalling tactics of the US are clearly doomed to fail. Even China has expressed its backing for the Palestinian cause. With the Quartet lacking a proper carrot or stick to bring both the Palestinians and the Israelis back to the table, the PLO’s diplomatic effort may be one of the best ways possible to convince the Likud government that negotiations are necessary, as Palestine will become a state one way or another. Bibi’s ministers have to realize that by not negotiating, they aren’t gaining leverage, they’re wasting opportunity to finally strike a deal.

The GA is going to overwhelmingly support either of the routes that Palestine takes towards upgrading their status whether a few Europeans can be peeled off or not, leaving the US in the dust. The United States has declared in the past that it is for a two-state solution but its actions heading into the General Assembly can’t be seen as those of an impartial negotiator and has the ability to hinder a US role moving forward.

Rather than wasting time and energy attempting to block the motion from passing, the United States should instead be working with both the Israelis and Palestinians bilaterally to help frame the terms of what the outcome will look like and mitigating any potential damage.

If Palestinian pride can be salvaged by abstaining in the General Assembly while still vetoing action in the Security Council, the United States should do so in an attempt to foster some semblance of goodwill to push Abbas and the PLO to act as a state should, cracking down further on militants within its supposed borders and putting the country back on track to holding general elections, currently scheduled for May 2012. A diplomatic victory such as the one in September has the ability to put Fatah even further ahead of Hamas in opinion polls in Palestine, as a June 2011 poll indicated a preference for Fatah’s policies in any unity government.

On the part of the Israelis, the US can privately guarantee that support for the Israeli right to exist and defend itself remains paramount in our policies, particularly against a Palestinian state provided Israel is not the aggressor. This can be coupled with the US pushing flexibility towards settlements in the West Bank being factored into any proposed land-swaps as part of the Quartet’s official plan, and acceding to the Israeli demand for control of security in any connection between Gaza and the West Bank.

What is currently being seen as a powerful defeat for the US can still be turned around into a beneficial arrangement for all parties. The General Assembly votes will be among the most closely watched to come out of the chamber in years and I know I’ll be on the edge of my seat.