Posts tagged ‘united nations’

August 28, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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March 13, 2012

Between the United Nations and the F-35, I’ll take the UN

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of finding a good nemesis. Not a true enemy, someone who you would enjoy watching crumble. Instead, I mean the sort of person who you know you will agree with absolutely nothing on, but are willing to have the debate with. Today I ran across Brett D. Schaefer, Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at the Heritage Foundation. In that role, Mr. Schaefer is the chief critic of the United Nations for Heritage. You can see where the two of us have a problem.

The piece that I stumbled upon today is a National Review article drafted by Mr. Schaefer called “The Costly United Nations”. In sum, the article slams the UN for going over budget in the much-needed renovation of its New York City Headquarters, noting that the final cost will be about $2B, or around 4% over the original budget. As Mr. Schaefer writes:

When the renovation was first proposed, more than ten years ago, the General Accounting Office (as the Government Accountability Office was then called) estimated it should cost from $875 million to $1.2 billion. But the project kept growing — winding up at roughly twice that size under the U.N.’s official, currently approved CMP budget of $1.9 billion.

But even that inflated baseline may be a gross underestimate. Last week, New York architect Michael Adlerstein, the executive director of the U.N. renovation and a U.N. assistant secretary general, informed the U.S. and other U.N. member states that the cost overrun will be not $80 million, but $265 million. And even that new estimate is subject to upward revision, because it does not include certain foreseeable costs.

Schaefer goes on to praise Ambassador Joseph Torsella, the United States Representative for Management at Reform to the UN, for expressing “outrage” at the process. Now, before we continue, I want to say that I don’t have any problem with Ambassador Torsella. The man has a difficult job, with a dual nature. On the one hand, he needs to go to the United Nations and butt heads constantly with the Fifth Committee of the General Assembly and the Secretariat, the bodies that appropriate and spend the UN’s biannual budget, and honestly try to convince them to spend less in a time of global austerity. At the same time, he has been tasked with enacting a policy of the Obama Administration’s that I like to think of as the “Cruel to be Kind” Doctrine, to place public pressure on the UN in order to allow other projects to move forward that benefit the United States without domestic public opinion trampling over Administration priorities. It’s a tough balancing act, but Ambassador Torsella does so with distinction, managing to call out issues that the United Nations has without damning the institution as a whole as many in his position would.

In any case, Amb. Torsella has stated publicly on his Twitter account that the UN’s Capital Master Plan (CMP), which is running the show as far as renovation is concerned, to “determine how these additional costs occurred & take prompt measures to reduce them to complete the project w/o new assessments”. Which is all well and good; as I said, that’s Ambassador Torsella’s job. However, Schaefer insists that any new costs associated with the renovation, including those for security enhancements, be taken from the UN’s general budget. This concerns me, as Amb. Torsella has already won a 5% reduction in the UN’s 2012-2013 budget, only the second time in fifty years that the budget has been smaller than the previous yer. While the US does bear 22% of the budget, I’m wondering just where Schaefer believes the UN should divest its money to fund the HQ renovation. From peacekeeping missions that are already underfunded and understaffed? From its development missions, which quietly exceed expectations and belie the meme that the UN isn’t a force for good in the world?

That all being said, I must concede that Mr. Schaefer’s piece isn’t completely wrong. There are legitimate concerns with the acquisitions and prourement process at the United Nations. Papering over the need to enhance transparency and accountability at the UN hurts the organization as much as directly attacking it in my view. What does concern me, as part of a larger picture, is the obsession that organizations and individuals have with damning the UN for being a den of scum and villainy. Yes, the UN Headquarters renovation is running over budget. But as someone who’s spoken from the rostrum of the General Assembly, trust me, the building needed it. Asbestos in the walls, a weird water stain on the wall of the General Assembly, fire codes that haven’t been met since the 1960s, it’s a miracle the building hasn’t collapsed already.

So what we see here is that when a United Nations project goes 4% over budget, the Heritage Foundation pounces. Because it can, as the lobbying arm of the UN is minimal at best, no offence to the Better World Campaign, and thus lacks the adequate heft to pushback against Heritage’s narrative. The UN’s overspending, however, pales in comparison to that of the F-35 project. Despite the fact that the project has gone as much as 64% over its original budget over the last decade, or sixty percent more than the UN’s HQ upgrade, and that the thing is still in development, the Heritage Foundation is still backing its horse in this race. The  Foundation’s Dr. James Carafano went so far as to evoke the spirit of Col. John Boyd, the Air Force’s legendary fighter tactician and developer to push forward with the F-35 in an article that was not well received by some of Boyd’s compatriots. Heritage is also allowed to do this because they can; the defense lobby is one that nobody wants to tackle, and to come out against military spending is unpatriotic, the exact inverse of coming out in favor of the United Nations.

I bring up the F-35 mess because the United Nations is a national security imperative, whether Heritage wants to admit it or not. It may not have the same appeal as achieving tactical superiority in aerial combat, but strategic concerns and decisions are often less exciting that the tactics that go about in bringing them to bear. In short, the United Nations exists as a place where the vast myriad of US foreign affairs priorities collapse into a single space. Nowhere else can we have informal conversations with regimes that hate us and we’re none too fond of in return. Nowhere else can we meet with both China and Russia, our Great Power counterparts on the other end of the “free and open democracy” spectrum, and discuss matters of shared international concern and, more importantly, determine the red lines among ourselves for what each of the P-5 is willing to consider in terms of action. So the cost of remodeling the Headquarters is costing slightly more than originally planned for? Oh well. The building itself houses an institution that we need, and in the grand scheme of things the extra costs that will be assessed to the United States will be minimal and be part of a shared burden. In the choice between Turtle Bay and an airplane that has yet to be approved as operational, or one that suffocates pilots like the also over budget upgrades to the F-22, I’ll take the UN any day.

[UPDATE: In the four hours since I hit “publish”, the Headquarters project over budget estimates have risen to 14.2% over, rather than 4, or a total of $265M. While this is frustrating, I stand by my original argument.]

October 5, 2011

The GOP’s Mister Magoo Moment

First of all, I’d like to thank my friend Millie over at Fittingly for linking this blog in a post the other day. Also apropos are thanks to Capitol Hill Gang for linking as well, as it’s the first blog run by a complete stranger to actually read my work. Progress? I can guarantee that neither of you will see a spike in readership from your generosity but linked you are nonetheless.

In any case, after that last lengthy post, we now return to what is rapidly becoming our basic format on At Water’s Edge: an extended pop-culture metaphor serving as the framing mechanism for the IR-ish current events topic of choice. I may one day grow tired of writing these kinds of posts. But today is not that day. The comparison subject du jour is none other than The Nearsighted Mister Magoo. Why that man never invested in a solid pair of bifocals is beyond me. His stubbornness caused mishaps of the outlandish comedic variety, often drawing humor from the irony involved with Mister Magoo putting himself in grave danger unbeknownst to him but perfectly clear to the observing audience. The inability to see too much further than an inch past his face led me far too quickly to realize that he is the perfect symbol for Republican’s extremely nearsighted budget cutting mania, especially when it comes to the Foreign Aid budget.

In fact, ‘extremely nearsighted’ is putting it mildly and indeed gently when it comes to the overarching determination to shrink the size of the Federal government. I’m, if you could not tell, in favor of greater Federal power over the states, but I can understand the arguments that states’ rights people make in certain regards; when the country was founded, the Constitution was intended to truly bind the states into one country, while still preserving large swaths of independence. However, the world, the country, and even the Constitution, has evolved since those times, in ways that the established norms that were at the forefront of thought at the drafting of the Constitution could not predict nor would they be entirely applicable as a frame of reference in many of today’s issues. In areas like education, I can almost understand why some would advocate a reduction of government spending and an increase in the power of the states to determine their own course. When it comes to matters of national security and foreign affairs though, you really can’t make anything that resembles a Tenth Amendment argument. No debate is needed about the Constitutionality of the Federal government providing structures to advance foreign affairs. These are the issues that precipitated the very necessity of the Constitution; you need the Federal government to draw up the agenda and make the decisions necessary for the US to play on the world stage, in a way that fifty competing states just can’t.

Despite this need, the common defense provided for by the Preamble of the Constitution only extends as far as the armed services in the eyes of many. It’s ridiculously easy for GOP candidates and elected officials alike to take on straw-man Federal targets that the Republican Party thinks aren’t useful, or are over-bloated, or wasteful. These are all valid points in some areas, but not when it comes to the foreign policy mechanisms of the Federal government. The items in the budget under fire are some of the most important parts of the Federal government when it comes to keeping Americans safe, at home and abroad, at least on the same par as the deterrence that our armed forces represent. The United States is a poor target for states militarily due to the very basic fact that state-to-state, we still possess the hard power to take out almost any adversary in a blaze of blinding glory. There are maybe five states that could one day serve as an actual threat to the United States militarily, even less that would rate the level of existential threat. What you see instead of true sabre-rattling and actual military threats by states that disagree with or would wish to harm the United States is either support of various non-state actors who then act kinetically against the US and its allies or a slandering of the United States in the hopes that their views become a meme, part of the overarching narrative in global affairs today. The latter is what the US needs to get far better at preventing, because what’s the point of military deterrence when you lose every fight that isn’t on the battlefield? You can steamroll everyone’s army, but if nobody likes you enough to support any of your goals aside from at the barrel of a gun, what’s the point?

Arguments can be made that by sheer size of its economy that it makes it impossible for the US to be ignored, but the fact still remains that even trade alone does not make for partners whose goals align in lockstep with yours (see: the US and China). This need to influence other states without bombing or buying them makes particularly attractive Joseph Nye’s idea of soft power, a concept that the majority of Republican officials these days refuse to even acknowledge exists except to mock it. Strategically this makes no sense: When you can attract instead of deter, it makes things a lot simpler in terms of getting your way and is far, far cheaper in the long run.

As it stands, however, the Department of State is taking hits across the board, facing huge budget cuts as we (finally) begin discussing the FY 2012 budget.

As lawmakers scramble to trim the swelling national debt, both the Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate have proposed slashing financing for the State Department and its related aid agencies at a time of desperate humanitarian crises and uncertain political developments. The proposals have raised the specter of deep cuts in food and medicine for Africa, in relief for disaster-affected places like Pakistan and Japan, in political and economic assistance for the new democracies of the Middle East, and even for the Peace Corps.

The financial crunch threatens to undermine a foreign policy described as “smart power” by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, one that emphasizes diplomacy and development as a complement to American military power. It also would begin to reverse the increase in foreign aid that President George W. Bush supported after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as part of an effort to combat the roots of extremism and anti-American sentiment, especially in the most troubled countries.

Given the relatively small foreign aid budget — it accounts for 1 percent of federal spending over all — the effect of the cuts could be disproportional.

The State Department already has scaled back plans to open more consulates in Iraq, for example. The spending trend has also constrained support for Tunisia and Egypt, where autocratic leaders were overthrown in popular uprisings. While many have called for giving aid to these countries on the scale of the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild European democracies after World War II, the administration has been able to propose only relatively modest investments and loans, and even those have stalled in Congress.

Emphasis on the last paragraph cannot be stressed enough. In a time of global upheaval, where the world is looking to the United States for more than just military support, we’re instead severing ties, making it all the more likely that incoming rulers in states affected by the Arab Spring and other revolutionary movements will be that much less influenced by the United States, let alone friendly.

And let’s bear in mind just how little cutting the budget of the State Department will affect the overall budget, deficits and national debt. Over on Duck of Minerva, they’ve come up with an impressive list of analogies, about how little these cuts will help the overall budget crisis. My favorite has to be “Cutting foreign aid to address the budget crisis is like getting your hair cut in an effort to lose weight.” Numerous polls have proven that the American public has no earthly idea how much the US spends on its foreign aid, in March calling for the foreign aid budget to be cut from 25% of the budget to 10% of the budget. The problem, as anyone who reads cares about this stuff enough to actually read this knows, is that the actual percentage is close to 1. 1%.  As Josh Lyman once put it “68% of respondents think we hand out too much in foreign aid, 59% think it should be cut”, once again proving that The West Wing is applicable in nearly any situation.

Also of concern is that the same spending cuts are also threatening the growth of the Foreign Service:

Among the largest House subcommittee reductions was a nearly 20 percent cut in the funds that pay for Foreign Service officers and the civilians who support them. In justifying this action, the subcommittee report said it eliminated funds sought for 184 new staff because since 2008, some 1,622 Foreign Service officers and 1,001 civilians had been hired above attrition.

Ramping down the Foreign Service is about the worst idea you could possibly have at this time. As we begin cuts in our military which will necessarily affect our global strategy, and many people on both sides of the aisle say are necessary, we have to have some way to leverage US power into actually policy decisions by other states that benefit us. The most cost-effective way that we can maintain American prestige is to hire more Foreign Service Officers as the number of soldiers decrease, a strategy that Secretary Clinton has followed over the past several years, as can be seen by the amount of growth since 2008. To slow that growth is a tremendous mistake right now.

Now, I said “majority of Republicans” earlier, because there are most certainly vocal advocates of the benefits of smart power, including former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Secretary Gates spoke together with Secretary Clinton numerous times on the idea of smart power, to Congress and to the public, in ways that you would think would carry more weight than coming from State alone. Here you have the leader of the Department of Defense begging and pleading that the military be given more civilian support in keeping the peace, and the Congress saying ‘no’. In fact, with the proposed cuts, it seems to be more of a ‘hell no’. Shouted through a megaphone. The fact that the all-star combo of Clinton/Gates was ignored by Congress on advocating smart power says a lot to me about how little I want the Legislative Branch determining foreign policy. Granted, given their power of the purse some involvement is inevitable. But to use their platform to dash foreign aid against the rocks by strangling it to death, to mix metaphors, is atrocious.

The State Department is not alone in the crosshairs. USAID also took a hit in the same House subcommittee, going from $1.5B requested to $900M, which could seriously undermine the strategy laid out in the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. What’s more, that perennial foe of the Republican party, the United Nations, is a prime target this Congress. The 1980s saw the US withdrawing from UNESCO due to objections of the Reagan Administration over the agenda. The US went into arrears in the 1990s as the United States refused to pay the entirety of its dues. Only through a push by Ted Turner the United Nations Foundation’s Better World Campaign and the results of a bipartisan effort were we able to pay off our debt and become members in good standing again. Already, those efforts are under threat, as we are currently $736M in debt to the UN. Thanks, House of Representatives.

Well, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtenin is at it again. Earlier this year, after being handed the gavel of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Congresswoman convened hearings in January titled “The United Nations: Urgent Problems that Need Congressional Action” and in April called “Reforming the United Nations: The Future of U.S. Policy” with Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice testifying. The latest salvo, H.R. 2829, the United Nations Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act of 2011, was introduced in late August to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  Despite the bill’s title, filled with words that few people could disagree with, the bill would put unrealistic pressure on the Secretariat to produce changes that would be more detrimental than actually improving the UN. The GOP has long called for a ‘voluntary’ model for paying for the UN, in essence cherry-picking what it does and does not want to support and pay for, else the US would reduce its payments by half. In addition, the bill, if passed, would end U.S. funding for any UN agency that does not sign a special “transparency certification” with the U.S. Comptroller General. And it would cut U.S. funding to any UN entity tasked with implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Can you imagine how embarrassing it would be to have the US’ vote in the General Assembly withdrawn due to lack of payment? In addition, lawmakers seem to be missing out on the fact that the United Nations is the best foreign policy investment we could ever hope to make. In the January testimony, Better World Campaign Executive Director Peter Yeo stated that for every dollar of US investment in the UN, it delivers $1.50 in investment in American firms and companies. The same could most certainly not be said in the case of military spending in Iraq. Also, according to Ambassador Susan Rice in an interview on PBS in 2009, “if the US was to act on its own – unilaterally – and deploys its own forces in many of these countries, for every dollar the US would spend, the UN can accomplish the mission for twelve cents”.  So to fix the budget, the GOP would have us spend eight times as much on foreign intervention, or cut off all overseas missions. Sounds right to me. Thankfully, there’s been plenty of pushback against this bill, which never stands a chance of passage through the US Senate or not being vetoed by President Obama. That the GOP can score points this way though is highly disturbing.

Despite all of my arguments, it does stand to reason that it is hard to explain to American citizens why their money is going “over there” to build schools and roads when our infrastructure is crumbling, disaster relief when people are still struggling from last year’s oil spill in the Gulf, and food when we have children starving in our inner cities. The simplest of answers is “because we can”; that despite all of the economic hardships our country has had in the past three years, we are still the richest and most powerful state on Earth, and to turn our backs on the rest of the world would be callous beyond reason. The less altruistic view is the one that I ascribe to, that this foreign aid helps keep the world safer and America strong abroad, which is a necessity in a world that has shrunk down as we become more connected. To cut the knees out from under the foreign policy mechanisms now is amazingly short-sighted; this is a time where we need more friends abroad, not fewer, and withdrawing from the initiatives of the Foreign Service and the United Nations will undoubted prove detrimental in the long-run. Earlier this year, the Obama Administration floated the idea of combining the budgets of the Pentagon, Foggy Bottom, and DHS into a “unified security budget”. It’s an idea that’s worth discussing, but unfortunately, the GOP can’t see past their own face, or rather their next election, where the idea of cutting defense in favor of agricultural support seems downright un-American. The Mr. Magoo cartoons made light of the issue of myopia, but when it comes to the United States, it’s no laughing matter.

September 29, 2011

Venezuela is basically the Lady Gaga of the United Nations

Hear me out on the title. The day before yesterday ended the General Debate of the General Assembly this year. I wish I’d had more time to watch all of the speeches and critique them properly, but I can’t complain. At least I got to catch some. I know a few days ago, I half-jokingly lamented the lack of dictators this year to provide more…colorful moments. BUT WAIT.

Thankfully I had time to actually catch the Venezuela’s speech to the GA, always a crowd pleaser. Mr. Red Beret himself, President Hugo Chavez, was absent this year, due to his undergoing cancer treatment which, despite my opposition to almost all of his polices, I hope goes well. President Chavez’s illness didn’t mean that his speechwriters were unable find time to pen a marvel of a work for the Minister of People’s Power for Foreign Affairs Nicolás Maduro Moros. It was a doozy. Which leads me to make the analogy in the title, that Venezuela is basically the Lady Gaga of the United Nations.  I’ll explain after a bit, but first I want to cover just some of the things that Mr. Moros went over in his speech.

Once I realized I needed to write about this, the first words I put to paper were “Oh man, this is ridiculous”. So that I hope sets the tone for the rest of this. In one of his more sensible phrases, Mr. Moros insisted that the capitalist forces of the West are “marching towards ecocide”. From there he suggested that the West still follows the ideology of the conquistadors, incredulous that despite the energy crisis, the financial crisis, and food crisis, that capitalism continues to reign.

Mr. Moros then, like a high school senior giving a valedictorian speech, pulled out a quote from US scientist Linus Pauling:

“I believe that there is a greater power in the world than the evil power of military force, or nuclear bombs–there is the power of good, of morality, or humanitarianism. I believe in the power of the human spirit.”

Nothing wrong with that quote, per se. It just seemed like an odd choice. Or maybe not, because he continued on, saying it is “imperative to unleash a great counter political offense to prevent global war”. Venezuela called for the establishment of a broad peace-based alliance against war, saying that warmongers and especially the military-financial leadership must be vanquished. In a particularly fun point, he managed to call NATO “the military arm of the American empire”.

And here’s where it gets fun, and proves that someone at the Venezuelan mission has not done their homework. The Foreign Minister railed against NATO ‘violating’ the no-fly zone imposed in SC/Res/1973:

“What has become of the no-fly zone of 1973? How could NATO undertake more than 20,000 missions if there was a no-fly zone? Is this not a complete denial?”

So. I actually have read SC/Res/1973. And it clearly says that the no-fly zone does not apply to those Member States that are acting to enforce the no-fly zone. This being a Chapter VII resolution and all, acting under Article 42, this effectively means that so long as countries give the Sec-Gen a heads-up, they can fly as many sorties as they want to enforce the no-fly over Libya. The resolution also authorizes Member States to “to take all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya”. As anyone who actually pays attention to the UN knows, “all necessary measures” means military force. So while the argument could be made that NATO should technically be bombing the NTC forces attacking Sirte right now, Mr. Moros doesn’t quite manage to make a valid point.

Another buzz on the truth-meter is Mr. Moros’ claim that NATO introduced heavy weapons to Libya’s rebels. I have found absolutely no reporting of this anywhere except the hilariously anti-NATO Centre for Research on Globalization which I’m not even going to bother linking to. All of NATO’s actions, according to Venezuela, were “meant to prevent the Libyan government from protecting its sovereignty”. …Against its own people. I haven’t signed onto R2P in blood or anything, but I do believe that once you have to protect your sovereignty against your own citizens, something has gone horribly awry, especially when that protection involves lethal force and promise to hunt everyone down like rats.

The real crux of his argument about Libya is that the reason for the intervention was to recolonize Libya and take over its wealth. This stands out as insanely stupid on our part if that really was the plan. First of all, say we actually had invaded Iraq for its oil back in 2003. We have seen that it ends pretty poorly for everyone involved, so why would we attempt it a second time in Libya? Second, up until Gaddafi’s forces started marching their way east, Libya was back in the fold of the international community and especially well-loved by its neighbors to the south for its generosity. The West was getting Libyan oil just fine, until we sanctioned it. Logic doesn’t seem to apply during the speechwriting process in Caracas. All of this added up to the obvious conclusion that Syria is next on the West’s Regime Change Tour 2011. Luckily for Al-Bashar though, he has the full weight of Venezuela behind him.

The next part of his speech turn to Horn of Africa, which is, you know, a legitimate concern, being the most widespread famine in decades in the region. Unfortunately, this too turned into a case of West-bashing. Citing the ever reliable source Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) saying at the start of the Libyan intervention that the excursion would cost the US $500M in its first week Mr. Moros insisted that the amount spent in the first three weeks to massacre the Libyan people could have been used to prevent the deaths of dozens of hundreds of thousands in Horn of Africa. Again, I’m almost willing to give him a pass on what seems like a legitimate concern. He then called it part of a Malthusian policy to lower the world population as a conspiracy to raise revenue for capitalists. And we’re back on track with crazy.

The rest of his speech was devoted to railing against the United Nations system as a whole, including, but not limited to, the Secretary-General, the P-5 members of the Security Council, the Security Council itself, the Charter, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, and I’m pretty sure he spoke out against the cafeteria at one point. Okay, not really on the last one, but I wouldn’t have been surprised by this point.

So after all of that, where does the Gaga analogy come in? Look at it this way. The UN General Assembly is a huge event, where the world comes together to talk about the issues it faces and celebrate its achievements and challenges ahead for the next year. And every year, there are certain countries that people look forward to hearing from, knowing that it may well top the spectacle of the previous year, and that’s really what they pay attention for. So too it is with the MTV Video Music Awards and basically every awards show in the industry.  It certainly was not for the tension of the “Best New Artist” that 12.4 million people tuned into the VMAs this year. No, the VMAs have become a showcase for the outrageous, and nobody represents that better than Lady Gaga. She’s the main event and has been for the last few years. Everyone wonders just what she’ll do and say on stage at her next appearance. It’s a pretty easy line to draw between her and Venezuela at this point, especially now that Qaddafi is out of power.

So I’ll rank this year’s performance as a “Bubble Dress” on the Gaga Crazy scale, far below the Meat Dress, but still more out there than what many others are doing at the same time. This year was no “The Devil Has Been Here”, but really, what is? And they say showmanship is dead.

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 Hague on both your houses

I swear, after an hour long discussion with an Israeli friend of mine about my last post, I promised to myself that I would avoid Israel/Palestinian issues vis a vis the UN for a good long time. That promise has now been broken. So, thanks, Turkey.

The gist of it is as follows, thanks to the Irish Times for condensing:

Turkey plans to challenge Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip at the International Court of Justice, dismissing a United Nations report that said it was legal.

Turkey will apply to the court at The Hague next week, foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said yesterday. Mr Davutoglu’s comments came the day after Turkey suspended military agreements with Israel.

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has said it will take action against Israel for refusing to apologise for the killing of nine of its citizens on a flotilla to Gaza last year. Israel says its soldiers acted in self-defence.

So this fight is going to the Hague. I haven’t even had the chance to read the complete report on the flotilla incident, but it comes across as extremely balanced, calling the blockade itself legal but the actions in this specific incident over the line. Pretty even handed for an organization that is known in right-wing circles as being amazingly anti-Zionist.

A longer piece from Bloomberg indicates that the Turks intend to seek damages from the ICJ and a lifting of the blockade as illegal. If Turkey is looking for speedy recourse, though, they’ve turned to the wrong forum. The ICJ has a rather lengthy backlog of cases to get through, including the most recent case to be listed, which may keep Thailand and Cambodia from launching an all-out war against each other.

I can see how and why Turkey is planning to take this to the ICJ, but it will be years before any sort of conclusion is reached. In the immediate term, it only amounts to antagonizing Israel even further when, let’s face it, they’re feeling pretty agonized.

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.

August 30, 2011

The More Things Change: China and Russia in the UNSC

The UN Security Council bears marked similarities to the US Senate at times. The veto and the filibuster are both tools its respective insitution is known for, and which its users are loathe to give up. Both also have evolved over time, to where they are actually used very little. Instead, the threat of using one is enough to give pause before moving forward with draft resolutions or legislation.

When it comes to veto threats, the Russian Federation and China have made an art of the practice. Every draft resolution that comes before the UNSC faces a veto threat should it go too far, too fast for the Russians and Chinese. This isn’t to say that the United States, United Kingdom and France don’t make threats of their own, indeed the US holds the record for most vetoes since 1991, but they also put forward the majority of progressive drafts, often anathema to the BRICS countries.

It’s surprising to note, then, that Russia and China have in fact been authors of draft resolutions before the Council as of late. Last week, the Russian Mission to the UN introduced its own draft resolution on the situation in Syria. In June, China and the United States worked together on halting the conflict in the Abeyi region of Sudan to produce what would become SC/1990. Could these moves be seen as a shift towards a more proactive strategy at the UN Security Council?

While intriguing, the Syria resolution doesn’t seem to offer up a substantial shift in Russian strategy at the UN. The text itself is balanced to the point of absurdity, seeming to lay the violence at the feet of both the protesters and the al-Bashar government. This sort of ‘sovereignty first’ approach to matters is what is to be expected when Russia actually decided to attempt to head off interventions in what it sees as internal matters.

By presenting this draft, the Russian government can then point back to its attempts at peacebuilding when faced with a much stronger Western-backed resolution like the one offered by the UK and France in June. The draft also has the undertone that Russia is still seeking to be a player in the Middle East beyond its role in the Quartet, as its attempts to mediate in Libya showed.

Don’t forget that Chapter VIII, dealing with regional arrangements, was written by the Soviet Union to allow for action outside the scope of the United Nations. The Commonwealth of Independent states and, at least in part, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization , were developed for this very goal, providing the ability to act in the backyard interests that Russia holds so dear. Even after the embarrassing denial of SCO backing during the 2008 Georgian conflict, these organizations allow for action in the form of multilateral efforts and thus supporting Russia’s position pushing a rule of law-based multipolar world. Any future drafts proposed by the Russian Federation will seek to blame neither party for the issues under discussion or lean firmly on whichever side supports Russia.

China, on the other hand, presents a much more challenging analysis. Russia and China are often on the same side of the many issues that are presented before the UNSC, not because of any lasting ties or fear of Western oppression, but because they truly believe that many internal matters should remain so. Since the fall of the Soviet Union two vetoes issued by China have been tandem with Russia, in 2007 against a draft resolution on Myanmar and in 2008 against a draft on the situation in Zimbabwe. The only two other vetoes, both solo efforts, were against a six-month renewal of the United Nations Preventive Deployment Force (UNPREDEP) in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in 1999 and in 1997 against a draft on Central American stability. Neither were particularly world-shattering votes, taken not out of a pressing national interest by Beijing but rather to prove a point about non-intervention.

In the Abeyi resolution, however, we see a departure from the Russian modus operandi, in not only calling for a cessation of violence, but calling for an interim peacekeeping for to enforce it. Rather than preserving neutrality by allowing Sudan and South Sudan to negotiate among themselves, China support and helped draft language calling on the international community to help. While not a drastic shift in policy, it does go further than many would have expected of the PRC.

The Chinese instance of taking part in the drafting of the Abeyi resolution in and of itself is not the harbinger of a more progressive stance and strategy in the UNSC. If the Chinese government wants to be a true player on the world stage, though, it could serve as a starting point. Rather than relying on the status quo or to act as a shield or veneer against encroachment, China could use the Security Council much in the same way that the West does, as an instrument in which to push an agenda. This isn’t to say that such an agenda would be interventionist in nature or change China’s policy towards sovereignty. Rather, what we could see in the future is a China that works to build coalitions to pass resolutions rather than prevent them.

Such a day isn’t anytime near at hand, however. For the near future, China will continue to use the United Nations as a way to keep the status quo in place long enough to ensure it has the room necessary for its peaceful rise while doing its most important diplomatic maneuvering bilaterally and in smaller regional bodies, while Russia does much the same in hopes of recovering and holding onto its Great Power status. For the near future, Russia and China will be erstwhile allies in the Security Council, keeping those around the horseshoe table from enacting too much change too quickly. I can certainly say this: the day that China decides to shift to being the instigator is going to be an interesting day on Turtle Bay indeed.