Posts tagged ‘human rights’

March 30, 2012

In Defense of the Dictator’s Club

In what should be no surprise to anyone who has had an eye on Geneva in the last few weeks, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon had a piece published in Foreign Policy‘s “Argument” section. The topic? The UN’s continuing unfairness towards Israel, in an article titled “Theater of the Absurd”. In this particular instance, the Deputy Minister has an issue with the Human Rights Council’s latest vicious attack against the much-maligned state, claiming that the body has been hijacked, much like the Commission on Human Rights before it.

Last week, at its 19th Regular Session, the UN HRC passed a resolution launching an investigation of the continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank by Jewish citizens of Israel. The vote on the matter was 35 in favor, 1 against, and 10 abstentions, with the lone “no” vote cast by the United States. Pay attention to those numbers, as they become important later.

In response to the decision, Israel has not only forbidden access to its territory to any investigation under the resolution’s mandate, but severed all working ties with the Human Rights Council. This is the environment in which the Deputy Minister penned his Foreign Policy article. In it, he cites the continued presence of tyrannical states on the Council as a preclude of its legitimacy:

Only 20 of the 47 nations on the UNHRC, a minority, are considered “free” by the independent NGO Freedom House. The majority of nations currently represented on this self-styled “human rights” body do not allow basic freedoms for their own people, let alone concern themselves with global civil liberties.

The current roster of the UNHRC is a virtual who’s who of global human rights offenders: It includes Cuba and Saudi Arabia — not to mention Mauritania, where modern-day slavery is an entrenched phenomenon. Last year, while Libyan despot Muammar al-Qaddafi was massacring his own people, the Human Rights Council drafted a report full of praise for the former dictator’s regime for its “protection of human rights.”

Let’s work our way backwards in examining these claims. The report the Deputy Minister mentions is the Universal Period Review, a mechanism the UNHRC has developed to look at the human rights records of every UN member state, Libya in this case. The New York Times article Ayalon cites pulls some choice quotes out of this draft UPR, signaling the corrupt nature of the endeavor. The praise from a who’s who of international pariahs comes across as highly disturbing. The problem with this narrative, however, lies in the fact that none of the states listed were members of the Human Rights Council at the time. Rather, the rapporteurs for each report, in this instance Argentina, Norway and Senegal, solicit input from literally every member state of the UN. Plenty of other states registered concern at Libya’s rights record in that text, and the recommendations for reform at the end include several that were rejected by Libya.

Minister Ayalon’s concerns about the makeup of the Council are somewhat valid, and we’ll address those shortly. However even by his math in the quoted text, something is off. In the event all the “not free” states voted in favor of the resolution, which they did, that wouldn’t give thirty-five votes, the number actually case. As it turns out, some of those free countries, such as Austria and Belgium, joined their non-free counterparts. The rest of them, save the United States, chose to abstain on the draft, rather than putting forward a no vote. This is hardly a ringing endorsement of the Deputy Minister’s position that the Council is being hijacked. Were Austria and Belgium forced to vote yes? Were the ten states who abstained muzzled? I would think not.

As I indicated before, I do have to concur that it is still disturbing that rights violators often make it onto the Human Rights Council. This is less a product of willful maliciousness but an unwritten set of rules in Turtle Bay. Most bodies like the HRC fill the seats through an allotment of a certain amount to each Regional Group at the UN. These groups then produce consensus candidates which take up their seats regardless of human rights records in the HRC or contributions to international peace and security in the Security Council. The fact that Togo sits on the UNSC this year is as much a fault of this system as Saudi Arabia’s presence on the Human Rights Council.

The Deputy Minister is also correct that Israel has had more resolutions specifically targeted at it than any other state. As he says, many human rights abuses escape inquiry at all. However, he is incorrect in asserting that the HRC refuses to make strides against legitimate cases of rights violations. For example, the work of the Council over the past year with regards to Syria are extremely commendable. Several special sessions have been held alongside the appointment of a special Commission of Inquiry to investigate the situation. Likewise its swift action against Libya last spring belies the normal argument that the Human Rights Council is full of dictators who are loathe to depose one of their own.

Many of these positive outcomes from the Council is a byproduct of the United States’ deciding to engage with and seek a seat on the Council, rather than shunning it as originally planned. It is with that in mind that the state of Israel should think much harder about its position towards the United Nations. I will readily admit that there does exist a bias among many of the Member States against Jerusalem. This has been reflected by the insane number of resolutions passed in the General Assembly condemning the state. But the solution is not, as Ayalon seems to suggest to pick up the ball and go home (emphasis mine):

Perhaps it is time to establish a new organization that more faithfully adheres to a true human rights agenda. Democracies should reassess their participation in a council that places political calculations over the protection of human rights, while providing cover to some of the world’s most brutal regimes.

The need to institute reforms at the United Nations is apparent to anyone who’s spent time studying it. But the idea of starting up a new organization, a League of Democracies as has often been fantasized about, should remain just that: a fantasy. For democracies putting off ties from states that do not fully live up to Western standards would be a critical mistake, especially when they outnumber you. Rather, constructive engagement is key to rising all states to the same level, rather than bringing them down as Ayalon seems to suggest.

In reality, the Human Rights Council is no more a “Theater of the Absurd” than Ayalon’s outrage is a farce. The Deputy Minister asserts that Israel will remain willing to work with UN inquiries that “don’t already confer guilt”, but if such inquiries are approved, or silently condoned, by those Israel would invite to a new organization, where does that leave Jerusalem?

March 23, 2012

Who Are We?: The US, Race, and the Human Rights Agenda

The nineteenth session of the United Nations Human Rights Council is taking place in Geneva this month. The United States is currently a member of the UNHRC, after much bemoaning of how it would be yet another playground of dictators and rights abusers. Joining up was the right choice; it’s hard to influence change on the outside looking in. Since the US first won a seat on the Council, much substantive work has been done on how to better improve the living conditions of peoples around the world, living in unimaginable conditions, facing the threat of death or worse each and every day.

And yet, as representatives of these Member States meet halfway around the world, I find myself compelled to ponder on the place that the United States holds in the human rights community. If you were to ask any averge American, we are clearly the apex, the zenith. We see ourselves on the world stage a lynchpin; as the US goes, so should the world go in terms of the norms that should rightly be championed. Freedom of speech. The right to worship as you please. The idea that your government has the responsibility to care about your well-being, rather than attempting to make your lot in life worse.

That’s how we like to see ourselves, and yet when the mirror is held in front of our faces, what do we see? Our metaphorical eyes prefer to dance around, averting our gaze from anything that mar our visage. How is it so easy to gloss over the imperfections and ignore the things that need to be fixed at home? President Obama spoke out on the Trayvon Martin killing this morning. His words hit home, and I felt the need to pen some of my own. For those who haven’t heard somehow, the story is one of a seventeen-year old, wearing a hooded sweatshirt as he walked through his neighborhood, who was shot in the chest and killed by a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain. The story has changed several times on the exact rundown of the situation and the legality of George Zimmerman’s actions. But Trayvon is still dead and Zimmerman is still outside of custody.

As I said on Twitter, my teenage years were spent in Flint, MI, also known as one of the most violent cities in the country. But I loved it, for the education it gave me, the people I met, and not once did I walk down the streets with fear in my heart. That lack of fear came from a few key factors: thanks to my six-foot frame, I don’t precisely scream ‘victim’; a youthful belief in one’s own invincibility; the lack of items of value in my possession to have taken; and, almost most important, the color of my skin. I looked like the majority of the people in the city, which is to say I am a black man. Any idea that I would be assaulted or harassed because of what I looked like was alien to me as I moved through the avenues of downtown Flint after dusk.

I walked through Flint without fear. The idea that I would be less safe today walking down the streets of a suburb in a hooded sweatshirt than I was in Flint horrifies me. It’s absolutely unfathomable that the status of race-relations in this country, the self-proclaimed greatest on Earth, is at the point where the murder of a young black man is simply shrugged off for days, weeks, until people finally took notice. It’s with no small amount of shame that I admit even I ignored the story until it gained momentum.

Among the rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, itself drafted largely by the United States, are the rights to life, liberty, and the security of person, regardless of race or color among other traits. Where were those rights when Trayvon Martin was shot and killed? Where are those rights now, as his assailant and killer still walks free? The US has come a long way in moving towards the society described in the UDHR since it was first adopted; in theory blacks are the equals of all other races in our society, a laughable claim in 1948. And yet in the very systems that would ensure that equality, there does still exist an imbalance among our citizens, shadows of the past that cannot be denied or hidden from or scoffed at.

My friends who know me well will probably be surprised to read this post. It’s not often I like to discuss race relations, as my relations with races are above par. But this situation rings differently. For one, it could have been me; I can’t count the number of times I’ve strolled through affluent neighborhoods in a hoodie and jeans, late at night, and my skin the same shade as ever. More importantly, it could be one of my future children. I intend to raise them well, whenever they come, and teach them right. But you can’t teach someone to look different. That’s one thing you can never shield someone from. And my heart breaks at the idea of having to explain to them why they would need to be shielded at all.

The United States speaks with conviction on the spread of human rights around the world, led at the United Nations by Ambassador Susan Rice, a black role model in her own right. As we move forward, our human rights agenda must continue to be as forceful as it has been in recent years. The vigor with which we pursue equality and justice for human beings around the world cannot abate. But we, as a country and as a people, need to take pause and make sure that the lessons we seek to impart on the world are not falling on deaf ears at home. We should be an example of our own goals for the world, free from qualifications, and free from excuses.

March 8, 2012

UNESCO. C’mon. You’re killing me.

As you may have noticed by now, I have an affinity for the United Nations system, in all its splendor and for all its bruises. As such, I take it quite badly when portions of that system are attacked unfairly. The latest whipping boy of the system has been the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). For having the most benign sounding name ever, it is constantly finding itself in turmoil it seems. In the 1980s, the Reagan Administration withdrew from the organization entirely. We returned in 2003, but relations aren’t exactly prime right now.

Last year, funding was stripped from UNESCO by the US and Israel for its members voting to allow a seat for Palestine as a full member state. Emphasis on “state”. A relatively obscure law in the United States kicked in, revoking all funding for UNESCO and threatening the same to any other body within the United Nations system that allowed for a Palestinian State to take a seat, circumventing Israel/Palestine peace talks. I did not approve of this move. The Obama Administration has made clear that it wants to get a waiver for the current fiscal year for UNESCO from Congress, and has included its normal funding levels in the FY13 Proposed Budget. The likelihood of this being approved by Congress is lower than the odds that Joseph Kony will see how reviled he is on Facebook and turn himself in. But I digress. It was a move that showed support for the United Nations, and so I was happy.

But UNESCO’s Executive Board is currently meeting, and the collection of states are taking steps that make me bang my head against my desk and cause me to question my support. Before continuing, let me make clear that I know this goes against my separation of Member States from the institution, but really now, I feel this is worthy of my scorn. The first issue is a bit more complex than the second. Equatorial Guinea’s strongman president Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo donated a large sum of money to UNESCO in 2008 to establish a life sciences prize named after him. Considering Equatorial Guniea’s rampant corruption, drug trafficking, and abuse of human rights, there was mild consternation at this prize by the human rights community, up to and including Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The prize has been on hold since it was first approved by UNESCO’s Executive Board due to backlash.

Until recently, that is. Obiang, rather than withdrawing the prize as recommended by the Executive Director of UNESCO, has graciously allowed it to move forward without his name. Human Rights Watch, among others, isn’t of the opinion that the prize should be offered at all, with or without his name, and UNESCO’s own lawyers indicate that the prize can’t be awarded with a name change due to the stipulations of the donation. But, being a bold champion of freedom, a commission of the Executive Board has approved the prize by a vote of 33-18 with six abstentions. The full Board still has to approve, but with that lopsided a vote, I’m not sure a renewed campaign to sway the outcome will be effective in time.

The second rage-inducer is quite a bit more straightforward. The international community has, for a full year now, been on course for a systematic removal of Syria’s authority and role in the system. Unfortunately, as I’ve noted before, Syria isn’t a part of many international organizations to begin with. But last year, for reasons passing understanding, the Arab bloc at UNESCO put forward Syria as their representative to fill a seat on the Committee on Conventions and Recommendations, which has a human rights component to it. The West has been pushing since then to have Syria removed, which would be in line with actions taken against Libya in the run-up to the passage of Security Council Resolution 1973.

According to a copy of the draft resolution obtained by Nabil Abi Saab, however, that doesn’t look to be in the cards. As Reuters explains:

Ambassadors, including those of the US, France, Britain, Germany, Qatar and Kuwait, had asked in December for Syria’s situation to be discussed at the 58-member UNESCO executive board meeting this week.

Seventeen states led by Russia last week attempted to block the move and appear to have managed to convince members to water down the resolution.

“It is a strong condemnation. Eighteen countries of the executive council have signed it and it will be presented later today for vote,” a diplomatic source at UNESCO said.

A strong condemnation is great, really. But it shows far less resolve than is warranted for the situation at hand. What’s worse, it was such a simple move, removal of a country that is being further isolated by the day from a committee that, let’s be honest here, doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Rather than sending a message of warning to Damascus, the passage of this resolution shows a lack of unanimity from the world that has been the plague of formulating a political solution to the crisis. The continued presence of Syria on the committee also manages to drag down the credibility of UNESCO, already low in the United States and potentially spreading to other Western states. Again, I understand that the Executive Board is composed of Member-States and so their decisions are outside the control of the Executive Director and Secretariat of UNESCO, but between the acquiescence to the delivery of the Obiang prize and the lack of resolve on Syria, UNESCO is letting me down here. So get it together, UNESCO. I want to keep on defending you, but you have to give something back to this relationship.

March 7, 2012

Can the United Nations Harness #KONY2012’s Energy?

If you follow a single human rights, civilian protection, or international development advocate on Facebook or Twitter by now, you’ve been awash in the blitz that is Invisible Children’s latest piece. The hashtags #stopkony and #kony2012 have taken over the trending topics in the United States, as thousands of college students have their eyes opened to the atrocities performed in the Great Lakes region by the Lord’s Resistance Army.

As is to be expected when a spotlight is shined on an area many have already been focused on, there has been some major pushback on the simplified narrative Invisible Children provides, namely that not a single person actually affected by the Lord’s Resistance Army was interviewed for the piece, nor are actual means of producing a solution included in the film. As Laura Seay so eloquently put it on Twitter today, “the awareness of American college students is NOT a necessary condition for conflict resolution in Africa.” Longer, and excellent in substance, critiques have been penned by Dan Solomon at Securing Rights and Mark Kernsten at Justice in Conflict.

All of their judgments are extremely on point when examining the dissatisfaction that comes with the fact that the sole ask of the viewers of the video is to launch a major flyer posting effort to spread even more awareness. But you’d be hard pressed to deny the marketing strategy put in place by Invisible Children is impressive in its scope and speed. The name “Joseph Kony” is soon to become much more prevalent on many people’s lips. The question that many have, however, is “So what?” How does it matter that Kony is now as infamous among people who haven’t been paying attention this whole time as among people who have? And how does IC’s claim that “The problem is that 99% of the world doesn’t know who he is” solve the actual problems of the civilians that the LRA terrorizes? The answer to that depends on how much you believe that awareness can fully transition into action.

The power of narrative in driving solutions to conflicts is unavoidable, as is the notability of its absence. For years, the government of Sri Lanka fought against the freedom fighters cum terrorist group known as the Tamil Tigers. The conflict came to a head in 2008, with the Sri Lankan government launching an all-out offensive against the Tigers, resulting in what a UN panel of experts has since called war crimes perpetrated by both sides. The United Nations and the world as a whole were silent at the time, partially for domestic concerns, partially because of the power that the global war on terrorism narrative still possessed, and partly due to uncertainty on the nature of the conflict. In the end, there was no inspiring video to draw attention to the issue, no major push for its cease. Most people didn’t hear of the conflict until it ended, and even now, many couldn’t tell you that human rights abuses occurred at all off the coast of India.

The United Nations is belatedly attempting to bring about some form of justice on the Sri Lankan government. A small uproar resulted in the removal of Sri Lankan Major General Shavendra Silva, himself accused of allowing war crimes to be committed by soldiers under his command, from an advisory panel on reimbursement of peacekeeping contributing countries. The United States has also drafted a resolution to put before the Human Rights Council, calling out the lack of progress the government of Sri Lanka has made in holding human rights abusers accountable. All of this is post-facto guilt soothing, however. The international community didn’t move swiftly, or at all, to take any measure of punitive action against Sri Lanka at the time.

The silence surrounding Sri Lanka as it unfolded made it extremely difficult to muster public outrage or pressure on domestic governments to take action against atrocities as they occur. This in turn allows for a “complete disinterest from the UN at key moments”, as Vanessa Parra put it. In his post at The Atlantic on inconsistency in intervention, Joshua Foust implies that the ability for some crises to better mobilize public relations blitzes over others shouldn’t be the basis for policy-development. While this is true, these blitzes do at least bring the issue in question to the forefront of collective consciousness, where actions may be taken to help solutions develop, and as Solomon described provides a base for communities to organize around.

So how can these communities organize in a way that actually brings about positive change? I, for one, would like to see more engagement between these groups and the United Nations. The United Nations as an overarching institution, mostly via the Secretariat and the Secretary-General, is often ahead of its Member States when it comes to human rights protection and atrocities prevention. As just one example, see the Secretary-General’s impassioned defense of the rights of the LGBT community at the current session of the UN Human Rights Council. Compare and contrast his speech with the unwillingness of the Organization of the Islamic Conference to recognize the importance of the issue, staging a walkout of the debate.

In attempting to promote rights, the United Nations walks a careful balance between advocating positions counter to those of a minority of its dues-paying members and earning enough consternation from those states that it affects the UN’s programmatic work through withholding of funding or other withdrawals from participation. So the question becomes how does the UN as an institution, in the face of potential disagreement from Member-States, harness the civilian energy that is present in some cases? And to what extent is this energy transferable between high-profile and low-profile issues? I’m an expert on neither civilian protection nor advocacy organization, but I have to find that the United Nations would better serve if it found methods to achieve these aims. The greatest effort I’ve seen thus far is the partnership between the UN and the campaigns of the UN Foundation*, though a greater programmatic component to the bond between the two would be encouraged, along with a greater sense of agency by the United Nations itself in pushing the civilian/IGO link.

A method for joining advocacy and action that is underutilized, in my opinion, is the ability of non-governmental organizations to gain consultative membership in the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Thousands of NGOs currently take part in ECOSOC’s Plenary sessions to advise resolutions as they develop, but the relationship should be more of a two-way street. Rather than merely advocating for their unique issues, the NGO members of ECOSOC should be constantly receiving, and disseminating to their own members, news from the Secretariat about how the UN is making a difference in their particular issue of note, and how help can be provided. The NGOs can then turn their members to bear on leveraging that information in lobbying domestic governments and pressing for escalation to the General Assembly and Security Council.

As it specifically relates to the Great Lakes region, the potentiality of the UN bandwagoning on the viral success of the Invisible Children project is apparent. Outreach to college campuses on how to actually provide humanitarian relief and urge the US government to do more in cooperation with the missions on the ground in the region should be ramped up immediately, by the UN’s Office of Public Affairs, the UN Foundation, and other NGOs that work directly with United Nations programmatic components. To me, the whole #Kony2012 imbroglio boils down to that I can’t fault excited college students for wanting to spread awareness of issues that don’t dominate headlines. What I can fault is organizations doing it in a heavy-handed manner with no real recourse for the peoples affected. Rather than complaining about the ineffectiveness of the campaign, we should be pushing for ways to bridge the gap between intentions and outcomes.

The United Nations could serve as a mechanism for the passion of the young advocates out there that clearly exists to find ways to translate that enthusiasm into action. The UN acts as a force multiplier when it comes to the use of force, as the Obama Administration would do well to remember when it comes to the Great Lakes, so why not when it comes to channeling advocacy and passion that clearly is there to be tapped? Without a balance of the two, advocacy and action, we find ourselves with silent atrocities such as in Sri Lanka, or instances in the DRC where suddenly everyone is aware of a problem with no viable method of affecting the situation.

(*Full disclosure: I served briefly as an intern with the United Nations Foundation, and still have many friends there.)

February 8, 2012

What’s next for the United Nations and Syria?

The majority of the coverage following Russia and China’s twin veto of the UN Security Council’s resolution on Syria has been devoted to parsing the motives of the two in casting down the draft. I disagree with those who say that a veto was inevitable following the outcome of resolution 1973 on Libya. I most certainly agree that NATO overstepped its bounds in its air-campaign, doubly so when it comes to the arming of the Libyan rebels. However, Russia and China knew what they were getting into when they abstained on what was, as Joshua Foust pointed out in April, “in essence, a declaration of war by the international community against Gadhafi”.

In any case, the reasons for the veto matter less than determining what to do next for this scenario. And for UN observers such as myself, that includes making a determination on whether there’s a role for the United Nations moving forward with this crisis. Despite the frozen nature of the Security Council at this junction, there are a few options on the table for the UN, some less likely than others to succeed. So what can the UN do? I have listed out below a few policy options for the US to consider and/or pursue at the United Nations moving forward.

Removal of Syria from UN bodies:

The United Nations is already working on this, as is evidenced in UNESCO. Syria was quietly nominated to and accepted by acclimation as one of two Arab representatives seated on UNESCO’s Committee on Conventions and Recommendations, which has a human rights component to its work. The members of the Executive Board, including Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Djibouti, the US, United Kingdom, and France, are pushing to have Syria removed from the seat. The Executive Board next meets on March 10th, and are expected to take action then. Unfortunately, or fortunately, Syria lacks the weight it has in the past at the United Nations, leaving it with few seats to be removed from. The Syrian Arab Republic is currently serving no terms on the ECOSOC, Human Rights Council, or UN Development Programme or UNICEF’s Executive Boards. The only other major human rights body of the United Nations, the Third Committee of the General Assembly, can’t suspend Syria without the GA suspending its full membership. And considering states like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea manage to stay within the UN’s good graces, it’s doubtful that Syria will be suspended anytime soon.

Prognosis: The UNESCO push is likely to succeed, further isolating Damascus, but a lack of other Syrian memberships limits further options.

Uniting for Peace?

After the veto last week, the buzz started up once again that in looking for a ‘Plan B’ on Syria, Uniting for Peace was back on the table. When asked about this option during a press conference yesterday, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin stated that he hadn’t heard about such action being considered, and that if it were it would be “complicated”. He’s right on this one. The problems that I had with the idea last month still are very much the case, particularly in regards to legality. At best, a new General Assembly resolution will be able to encourage states to pass new sanctions against Syria, but these sanctions would be unenforceable in open waters.  I’ve also heard discussion about using a resolution to call for an informal arms embargo as provided in the earliest version of the Morocco draft. The problem remains there that while the states who don’t like Syria will happily block arms sales, the main arms suppliers to Assad are Russia, who won’t allow its vessels to be boarded, and Iran, who would find new and exciting ways to ship arms to Syria. Any sort of blockade that comes without UN Security Council approval will be, and should be, seen as an Act of War. That said, using the General Assembly to endorse the Arab League’s plan, rather than calling for further measures of its own, has a slightly better chance of succeeding. Again, without enforcement measures, though, it’s hard to see the international community’s opinion weighing heavily on the heart of Assad.

Prognosis: Slightly better odds than I originally predicted, provided the UNGA limits itself to endorsement of the League of Arab States’ plan.

United Nations Fact-Finding/Mediation Mission:

Rather than waiting to see if the League of Arab States’ mission resumes, the United Nations could seek to launch a fact-finding mission of its own as to the levels of violence within Syria. Such a provision could be included as part of a General Assembly resolution, however, we again run into enforcement issues. In its resolution last year to launch an investigation into Syria, the Human Rights Council demanded that Damascus cooperate in full with its commission of investigators. It most certainly did not, leading the commissioners to rely on the testimony of defectors and others outside of Syria to gather evidence for their final report. There is no reason to believe that Assad’s government would welcome a new mission into its borders readily, or grant more access to UN observers than they did the Arab League’s team.

Such a proposal would, therefore, require support from the Security Council. In the earliest days of the Security Council, rather than tasking the Secretary-General to undertake peace missions, the Council itself dove right in, utilizing member-states rather than UN diplomats. For example, in the first India-Pakistan conflict in 1948, rather than task the Secretariat to launch an investigation, the UNSC passed Resolution 39. The Resolution set up a commission composed of three member-states, soon upped to five in Resolution 47, to travel to Kashmir and report to the Council on the conditions on the ground before launching mediations. Unfortunately, the military situation in Kashmir prevented the commission from completing its mission, but a similar move could be made with regards to Syria. Unfortunately, it’s unclear whether such a move would work, for several reasons.

First, the opposition has made clear its distrust of the Assad government, and continues to make the President’s resignation a precondition for any negotiations with the government. The Assad regime, and Russia to a lesser extent, finds this unpalatable. Further, it’s unlikely that Russia would support a diplomatic initiative directly undertaken by the Security Council for several reasons. The insertion of a UN team into Syria amid rising violence risks the injury of death of one of the observers, a tragedy in itself, but could lead for a push to provide protection for these observers. The slippery-slope on this would be clear for Moscow. Further, Russia is enjoying its sole leverage over Syria, as evidenced in Foreign Minister Lavrov’s trip to Damascus yesterday to present a plan so secret that no details could be revealed.

Prognosis: The General Assembly may choose to send a team, but lacking authority, the UNSC would be forced to take up, and fail, the issue.

Secretary-General Envoy for Syria:

Rather than pushing for an observation mission, the Secretariat could unilaterally insert itself into the Syrian crisis. The Secretary-General under the Charter has rather wide leeway when it comes to diplomatic initiatives, as greats such as Dag Hammarskjold and Kofi Annan have realized. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon could himself launch the sort of shuttle diplomacy that might produce an end to the Syrian crisis. In utilizing the Good Offices of the Secretary-General, Mr. Ban could choose to appoint and send an Envoy for Syria to Damascus, or could undertake the initial trip himself. The idea, while not a guarantee to succeed, has some potential. The United Nations as a body, opposed to a collection of Western plotters, might command Assad’s respect at least slightly more, insofar as accepting an envoy for discussions. Further, the opposition knows quite clearly where the Sec-Gen stands on violence in Syria in light of his condemnation of the Russian and Chinese vetoes. Further, as a second-termer, Mr. Ban has less to fear from the Permanent Five than he did in his first; there’s no reelection to win.

Prognosis: While not guaranteed to end the violence, has potential to help facilitate a political end to the crisis.

Humanitarian Resolution in the UN Security Council:

In light of the ongoing humanitarian disaster that is Syria, one of the most pressing calls has been to set up “safe zones” and “humanitarian corridors” in Syria. While these are non-starters with Russia and China, there is always the option of passing through a resolution that, rather than focusing on the political aspects of the crisis, focuses in on the need to protect refugees and provide aid to those in Syria who need it. Or at least that’s what it would any logical person would assume was a possibility. In actuality, it would be extremely difficult to pass, and then enforce, such a resolution, as we can see from the Somalia situation. In that instance, we saw what began as a mission solely to deliver aid to those suffering famine in the form of Operation: Restore Hope, and endorsed by the UN in Resolution 794. The endeavor quickly experienced mission creep, leading the Council to pass more and more resolutions on the issue before the whole effort ultimately collapsed. Any attempt to only handle one aspect of Syria will be done at risk of inflaming the ignored portions of the crisis.

Prognosis: Unlikely; there is no such thing as an apolitical resolution.

Wait:

The least appealing of options is to simply wait. The situation as it currently stands is sure to escalate, whether the international community intervenes or not. The Syrian government isn’t likely to have a sudden change of heart on the killing of its civilians, nor is the opposition like to turn the other cheek for much longer. The Free Syrian Army’s recruitment efforts have surely raised following the failure of the Morocco draft in the Security Council, and many are clamoring that now is the time for states who support democracy or the protestors or both to send arms to support the FSA. I’m rather sure that Turkey’s implicit hosting of the FSA won’t be tolerated for much longer by Assad, nor will the FSA wait for the Syrian National Council to get its act together before escalating attacks. An increase in arms, lacking accountability measures, will further wreak havoc on the region, particularly should the FSA be unable to control copycat organizations.

At present, the refugee situation, while certainly bad, is not a tidal wave; there are currently over 6,000 refugees registered in Lebanon and 7,500 in Turkey. An increase in attacks and the onset of civil war will certainly change that. As we saw in the midst of the Kosovo situation in the late 1990s, neighboring states’ destabilization from refugee inflow and harboring of resistance fighters, in that case Albania and Croatia, in this Turkey and Lebanon, will prove the impetus for more concerted action on Syria. This matter won’t be fully disappearing from the agenda of the UN Security Council anytime soon.

Prognosis: The most likely of options. We’ll be hearing about Syria in the UNSC more in coming months.

In summation, at least some options exist for next steps for the United Nations on Syria’s crisis. Many of them have components that are necessary to their success that I don’t believe exist at present. But the options still exist, and I wouldn’t fault Member States or the Secretariat for pushing forward with any of these. It’s easy to stand back, as I do, and critique; much harder to actually press for a deal. I still believe that no matter the course of action that is taken, the last of the options is what will wind up coming to fruition. Turkish and American calls for a Coalition of states, including non-permanent Security Council members, the Arab League’s members, and others, to deal with Syria outside the auspices of the United Nations are gaining traction. In the event the crisis worsens, however, the UN should be ready to step back in.

December 29, 2011

Whither the Atrocities Prevention Board?

Back in August, President Obama signed into existence PSD-10, a Presidential Study Directive on Mass Atrocities. When it was first released, PSD-10 was well-received by liberal interventionists and those who believe that preventative diplomacy and coordinated action can head-off mass killings, Anne-Marie Slaughter and myself included. Paul States of the Council on Foreign Relations noted that PSD-10 had the potential to make it so “the inertia and neglect that has often characterized U.S. responses in the past can also hopefully be lessened, if not eliminated”. Granted, not everyone was convinced about the necessity for further study into mass atrocities, but you can’t please everyone.

The language used in PSD-10 strikes a tone of hope for the future, while acknowledging missteps of the past, and a desire for an early warning system against mass atrocities:

In the face of a potential mass atrocity, our options are never limited to either sending in the military or standing by and doing nothing. The actions that can be taken are many they range from economic to diplomatic interventions, and from non combat military actions to outright intervention. But ensuring that the full range of options is available requires a level of governmental organization that matches the methodical organization characteristic of mass killings.

Sixty six years since the Holocaust and 17 years after Rwanda, the United States still lacks a comprehensive policy framework and a corresponding interagency mechanism for preventing and responding to mass atrocities and genocide. This has left us ill prepared to engage early, proactively, and decisively to prevent threats from evolving into large-scale civilian atrocities.

And it’s true. The bureaucracy involved in identifying, let alone taking action, on potential acts of genocide is ridiculous in its scope and the length of time it takes to run its course. The Directive determined that an interagency study, led by the National Security Advisor, would be complete within 100 days, to determine the full mandate and make-up of the body, as well as its processes. The resulting Atrocities Prevention Board was to begin its work 120 days after the signature of PSD-10, on August 4, 2011. It has now been 147 days.

Since August 4th, precisely nothing has come out of the White House on the matter. There have been no stories written, in the mainstream media on the development of the Board since late August. None. Nothing on interagency squabbles that would prevent its creation, nothing on how close it is to launch, nothing on how David Pressman’s War Crimes, Atrocities and Civilian Protection directorate at the NSC is proceeding. Nothing. Certainly outside groups [PDF] haven’t forgotten about the promise of the Board. Even the Senate has been more interested in putting the Board in the spotlight; Sens. Coons and Collins are circulating a letter that welcomes PSD-10 and the coming Atrocities Prevention Board.

Silence is certainly not helping the Administration look like it is taking the lead on actually securing human rights abroad. The ad-hoc approach determining the level of aid to be given to the Syrian opposition, as being reported by Josh Rogin at The Cable, is how the government has always worked in the face of potential disaster, a process the Atrocities Prevention Board was meant to change. Ad-hoc processes have their time and place, but a formal mechanism to target and collaborate on responding to massive human rights violations is needed to codify those processes if anything is to get done the next time a crisis rolls around.

If the Board is, in fact, up and running, an announcement needs to be made to the world. If there are delays in its launch, they need to be overcome quickly. Actually granting potential mass killings the level of attention they deserve is more than just good posturing and a bolstering of arguments of moral standing in the eyes of the international community; it’s good policy that actually enhances the security of the United States.

November 21, 2011

Surprise, GOP! Turns out the UN actually likes human rights. Who knew?

Tomorrow night, after an much-maligned showing two weeks ago, the Republican candidates for President are giving it another shot. That’s right, it’s time for another “foreign policy debate” between the Nine Who Would Be King (or Queen in the case of Representative Bachmann). There are sure to be some insane things said on the stage at the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Constitution Hall come Tuesday but one thing is certain to unite all of the office-seekers: a near pathological revulsion for the work, and for some the concept, of the United Nations. The Washington Post had an apt couple of paragraphs on the issue:

“Bashing the United Nations seldom fails as an applause line for Republican presidential candidates.

Mitt Romney says the U.N. too often becomes a forum for tyrants when it should promote democracy and human rights. Newt Gingrich pledges to take on the U.N.’s “absurdities.” Herman Cain says he would change some of its rules. Rick Perry says he would consider pulling the United States out of the U.N. altogether.”

I’d like to point out that Speaker Gingrich’s animosity is particularly impressive, considering his past history of supporting the need for the United Nations, co-chairing a panel in 2006 with recommendations on how to improve the body without utterly destroying it.  UN Dispatch has a great piece on the former Speaker’s love for the UN. But I digress.

If you were to believe the hype, the United Nations is a larger hive of scum and villainy than Mos Eisley spaceport in Star Wars, where a cadre of despots and tyrants sit twirling their mustaches and plotting ways to defame the United States. Counter to the narratives that are spun and deployed by the Republican candidates and their campaigns, the United Nations works frequently to promote human rights and shine light on the darkest corners of the world. Lest they forget, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a product of the United Nations. The Human Rights Council, once derided as toothless and spurned by the United States to the point of not seeking a seat on the initial balloting, has grown to the point of issuing strong statements of condemnation against the very regimes it once sought to protect and is seen by the Obama Administration as a critical tool in the United States’ foreign policy toolbox.

Earlier today, the Third Committee of the General Assembly: Social, Cultural, and Humanitarian  took up three draft resolutions, under their agenda item 69(c): Human rights situations and reports of special rapporteurs and representatives. These three drafts focused on human rights abuses in Myanmar, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Resolutions on the last of the three’s systematic violations of human rights norms have become almost an annual occurrence, and this year’s rebuke comes hot on the heels of the General Assembly voting to condemn the state for its role in an alleged plot against the Saudi Ambassador to the United Nations. The full text of the resolution on Iran can be found here.

“Those drafts are nice, but there’s no way that the world is actually growing more intolerant of human rights. Give me something concrete to prove that the UN as a whole actually supports human rights,” I hear you say. Fortunately, there are things like ‘numbers’ and ‘facts’ to assist us in making our case. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’s Mission to the United Nations has helpfully broken down the votes of the last two year’s votes on these proposals into a helpful chart.

Votes in GA3

Compiled by the UK Mission to the UN (@UKUN_NewYork)

As you can see, all three resolutions passed by a sizable margin this year. It is true and deserves to be noted that there are an unfortunate number of abstentions on the proposals. However, if those countries that abstained truly wanted to scuttle the Iranian proposal, it would have been within their ability to cast their votes in the “no” column, rather than allowing it to pass. The Burmese and Korean votes had no such chance, with an overwhelming amount of support in their favor.  The vast majority of Member States in the Third Committee, composed of all 193 members of the UN, are in favor of states following the basic principles of human rights in dealing with their citizenry, and use the United Nations as a forum to express that support. The resolutions will now proceed to the General Assembly as a whole for approval.

Tomorrow night is sure to bring outlandish statements, and more than likely a few gaffes, but let’s not allow them to bring forward untruths. The fact is that the United Nations is not just the sum of its parts, but greater than them. As an institution it has been at the forefront of protecting human rights for decades. As a collection of states it has sought to greater and greater degrees over time push for the rights inherent in all peoples of this Earth. The numbers above aren’t the best, but they’re improving. And they signal a hope for the future. Here’s hoping that the GOP can read those stats the same way.