Sunday, June 26, 2016
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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June/July 2016, pp. 44-45
United Nations Report
There’s More Than One Way to Skin the Security Council Cat
By Ian Williams
THE GOLDEN DAYS HAVE never glistened quite as brightly as we think, but if there were a Golden Age of Arab Unity it was perhaps half a century ago, when an American-born Lebanese Christian, Clovis Maksoud, was an ambassador for the Arab League, first in India, then later in the U.S. and at the U.N. In those days, Arab Unity meant more than a vow ofomerta between governments to cover each thuggish dictator’s rear—certainly to Maksoud, who was a true, but pragmatic believer.
He died in May, in Washington, where he had long headed American University’s Center for the Global South, and where he could call upon his long experience, powerful intellect, and deep reservoirs of respect across the world.
His pragmatism showed in several ways at the U.N. One was when he deployed the rhetorical skills he had honed in the Oxford Union and “Maksoudized,” as it was known—fondly, one might add. Superb and soaring, polysyllabic and poetical, his speeches mesmerized audiences—but left them scratching their heads as they wondered what he had actually said. When I asked him about it while he was at the U.N., he smiled and explained, “I represent the Arab League—it is almost impossible to say anything concrete that will not upset at least one of the members.”
As Arab League ambassador to the U.N., Clovis Maksoud has also left a lasting legacy that is equally mixed in its effects. He crafted the deal that synchronized the Asian and African groups’ cycles to ensure that there would always be an Arab representative on the Security Council.
It is not in the Charter, but by longstanding agreement, temporary seats are apportioned on the basis of geographical regions: Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa, and the West European and Other Group. Eastern Europe was essentially the Warsaw Pact countries, which have now almost all joined the European Union and NATO, or are trying to, but they maintain the fiction—claiming, for example, that it is their group’s “turn” to have a secretary-general. West European and Other was sufficiently elastic to include Australia, Canada and New Zealand, and thus allowed itself to be bullied into accepting Israel as a member.
In the U.N.’s version of geography, the Arab world is split between Asia and Africa, each of which has five temporary seats rotated on a two-year cycle. More often than not—as with so many U.N. positions—the fix is in. The diplomats at the U.N. courteously sort out a rota to avoid unseemly contests and surprises. One can tell decades ahead which member state will be “elected.” It is the same system that eviscerates the Human Rights Council by putting some of the most egregious offenders on it. At least the Human Rights Council made a pretense for a while of fielding more candidates than seats—even if they all knew which were the real candidates and which were for show.
The deal Ambassador Maksoud made was that every two years, Asia would reserve a seat for an Arab League member and in the alternate biennium one of the North African Arab states would rotate around. This was the cozy arrangement that returned dubiously Arab countries like Djibouti to the Council and regularly seats Security Council members who are in flagrant violation of the Council’s own resolutions. That is not an exclusively Arab problem, of course, but it lends neither prestige nor potency to the U.N. as an institution and the Security Council as its highest embodiment of the international community in matters of war and peace.
When Ambassador Maksoud crafted the deal, his concern was that there be an Arab voice on issues like Palestine that united them, and that there was at least vestigial respect for the notion of Arab Unity. But, of course, that fell apart after the original Egypt-Israel deal and never recovered. It has now become a diplomatic career opportunity for salespeople of unelected oligarchs.
THE SECURITY COUNCIL ADVANTAGE
The point of being on the Security Council was more than adequately demonstrated earlier this year, when Western Sahara appeared yet again on the agenda. The imbroglio has dire potential beyond the Polisario (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro) and Morocco.
Quietly but effectively, the issue has eroded the always parlous authority of both the secretary-general and the Security Council that have, with all their failings, done a lot to keep the peace since 1945. In March Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited the camps in Tindouf and, clearly upset by what he saw, called for the referendum on self-determination and referred to the Moroccan presence across much of Western Sahara as an “occupation.”
He had a similar epiphany when he visited Gaza early in his mandate and saw for himself the reality behind the clinically cleansed language of U.N. resolutions. When Ban made his statements Morocco went into unprecedented paroxysms of undiplomatic denunciation, claiming—totally falsely—that the U.N. and the international community accepted its annexation.
In a breathtaking abuse of language, Morocco accused the U.N. secretary-general of “semantic slippage” for using the term “occupation” and, along with even more incoherent indignation, noted with “utter dismay the verbal slippages, faits accomplis and unjustified complacency” of the secretary-general. It ordered the U.N. staff out of the territory it controlled. The kingdom staged mass “spontaneous” demonstrations against the secretary-general in the Moroccan capital, Rabat.
There were clear U.N. resolutions and decisions, not just about the territory’s status but about the U.N. staff. It was an unprecedented challenge to the Security Council’s authority. Remember, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was put on trial for such temerity.
The International Court of Justice had ruled that the Sahrawis are entitled to exercise their right to self-determination, and dismissed Moroccan claims to the land and the fealty of its people. The General Assembly had called for the “occupation” to be ended, and the Security Council had from the beginning asked the Moroccans to withdraw. Security Council Resolution 690, passed in 1991, established MINURSO, the U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, to implement settlement proposals that Morocco had accepted in 1988.
Rabat had paid lip service to the referendum while it tried to pack the electoral rolls with its settlers, but when it became clear that the eligible voters wanted Morocco out, the kingdom insisted that the referendum must exclude any question of independence. Almost as revealingly, Morocco and France have fought successfully to ensure that MINURSO remains the only peacekeeping operation without a human rights monitoring component.
When Morocco ordered U.N. staff to leave, Ban sought the support of the Security Council—but did not get it, due to opposition from France, Egypt and Japan. After days of backroom wrangling, the most the Council could deliver was an anodyne appeal for the mission to continue.
Persuaded by his staff that the U.N. term was a “non-self-governing” territory rather than an “occupied” one, Ban, even though upset by the Moroccan tirades, explained that his use of the term was his personal emotional reaction to the plight of the refugees. He did not back down from the clear decisions of the U.N. over the years, but modified his entirely accurate statement for the exigencies of diplomacy.
He and his advisers were appalled by the lack of active support from major Security Council members which, in effect, handed Morocco a proxy veto via France and its African allies. If only to uphold the authority of the institution, the Council should have had much stronger resolution about Morocco’s behavior.
A COMPROMISED SYSTEM
Morocco and its friends have thoroughly compromised the U.N. system on the Saharan issue. U.N. officials have been bribed and browbeaten not to challenge the Moroccan version with anything as upsetting as the truth. Interestingly. the MINURSO website begins its list of U.N. resolutions in 1991, when it was set up, not in 1975, when the Security Council asked Morocco to get out!
Rabat has consistently refused to hold the referendum that the Mission was sent to prepare for. The king, like his father before, knows he would lose it. And, once again shamelessly backed by France, Morocco’s successful opposition to permit a human rights component in MINURSO is a telling indication of how he intends to keep it.
In May, the Security Council sent a delegation to talk to Arab League countries in Cairo, where many of them grandstanded, demanding (rightly) that the Council should enforce its resolutions on Middle East peace and settlements. They seem to be missing the point that France’s attempts to jump start the peace process at the eastern end of the Maghreb are compromised by its own behavior on the western end. Perhaps summing it up, it was reported that, at a recent gathering, a former French ambassador to the U.N. reprimanded his British former colleague for being a puppet of the U.S.—for which he got the deserved riposte, “Better than being the King of Morocco’s puppet!” ◙
Saturday, May 14, 2016
Sunday, March 20, 2016
Friday, February 19, 2016
Boutros Boutros-Ghali was not one for political correctness. Despite his urbane diplomatic ways he found it difficult to dissemble least of all when confronted with what one might call unwarranted arrogance or even common stupidity. Not exactly modest himself, at least he had a strong intellect to match his aristocratic pride. From one of the patrician families, he ended up in the party founded by Nasser, but when confronted with contumely because of his grandparent, the original Boutros Ghali, a prime minister had been assassinated by nationalists, he hyphenated the name and made it his own surname in place of Ghali.
He recalled to me once that while his grandfather had to wrestle with actual British power in Cairo, his grandfather's appointment had to be ratified by a firman from the Ottoman Court in Constantinople since Egypt had passed from practical independence to British neocolonialism while still being officially bound to the Sultan. A background in such arcanae was good preparation for the UN. When he was attacked for saying that the keystone resolution, 242, on the Middle East was not a binding Security Council Resolution, it gave rise to the epithet Boo Boo. But as he explained later, 242 in itself is not binding, but 338 which invokes Chapter VII of the UN Charter and 242, did make it so.
A Coptic Christian with a Jewish wife needed a thick skin in the days of heady nationalism and none more so than when he accompanied Anwar Sadat to negotiate peace with Israel. This was a dangerous era when posturing Arab nationalists were quite prepared to stand for their principles no matter what the cost to the actual Palestinians, not to mention Arab conscripts, would be. They were quite prepared to assassinate those who disagreed. Boutros-Ghali was no starry eyed idealist: he knew that the almost terminally disastrous 1973 attack was what had belatedly converted Israeli leaders to the idea that peace might have its virtues.
Later he would complain that the concomitant parts of the agreement, to attend to the Palestinian part, had been abandoned. The fervent nationalists never forgave him for his part in brokering the peace, and neither Sadat nor Mubarak had the strength to appoint him as actual foreign minister with his Coptic ancestry. When the UN vacancy came up it was almost a godsend for Mubarak in how to rid himself of this worrisome Copt who could be neither fired nor promoted otherwise.
In 1992, Africa and the non-aligned countries had said it was Africa's turn for the job, and as the US told the relatively unconvinced ambassadors from sub-Sahara African countries, Egypt was in the African Union! In fact, Boutros-Ghali was already deeply concerned and involved in Africa as part of Egyptian foreign policy and did his best to bring the continent a stronger presence in the UN.
The French supported him, partly because, being a French speaker educated at the Sorbonne, he promised to restore French in practice to the position it held nominally as one of the UN's two working languages. He seemed to offer a good compromise: nominally African, culturally Western, and from an Arab country. The Security Council appointed him, even though he was only a little younger than Javier Pérez De Culler, the retiring incumbent.
Boutros-Ghali was also perhaps one of the few Arabs acceptable, at least initially, to the Israel Lobby in Washington, because of his part in Camp David. But he genuinely tried to put Africa on the agenda of the UN, and demanded attention for a continent that was indeed dark as far as Washington was concerned. When he said 'Genocide in Africa has not received the same attention that genocide in Europe or genocide in Turkey or genocide in other part of the world. There is still this kind of basic discrimination against the African people and the African problems,' it might have been unpalatable-- but it was certainly true.
Boutros-Ghali was nobody's puppet but he had to deal with the new reality after the Soviet Union fell. Earlier SG's could play the great powers off against each other, but now, there was only one Great Power, and its Congress was run by anti-UN demagogues. In Bosnia, Rwanda, and Somalia the pattern in Clinton's Washington was to pass the problem to the UN, and then to refuse to provide the UN with the resources it would need, to cope. Boutros-Ghali once summed up his situation as follows: 'I can do nothing. I have no army. I have no money. I have no experts. I am borrowing everything. If the member states don't want it, what can I do?'
While Arab nationalists and Third Worldists saw him as an American puppet, he was in fact far more nuanced. Like many he doubted the capacity of Washington to run the world, even if it had the power. He knew that the UN depended on the US to be effective, but also that the US needed to UN to steer the New World Order. His astute assessment was, 'When the United Nations was allowed to do its job without substantial US involvement, as in Mozambique, the operation succeeded. When the United States felt a political need for the United Nations, as in Haiti, the operation also fulfilled its main objective. But when the United States wanted to appear actively involved while in reality avoiding hard decisions, as in Bosnia, Somalia, and Rwanda, the United Nations was misused, abused or blamed by the United States and the operations failed, tragically and horribly.'
He continually and publicly pointed out when UN peacekeeping forces were being deployed to some crisis zone only to provide political cover for domestic political reasons but were not given the resources to succeed.
Washington treated the end of the Cold War as an opportunity (in the UN and elsewhere) to ride roughshod over any rival claimants to power. Boutros-Ghali, both on principle and on account of his proud temperament, refused to bow to the whims of Washington. He paid the price. While many blamed the US refusal to back him for a second term on his refusal to bury Israel's shelling of the UN camp in Qana, in South Lebanon, that killed scores of local civilians who had taken refugee there, he himself discounted that and privately attributed it to American realization that he was in effect trying to cobble together a "Loyal Opposition" to the US that would force it to listen to the rest of the world.
Ironically, the American veto that denied him a second term achieved that coalition. Madeleine Albright voted against everyone else as even America's closest allies, in exasperation voted against her. It was one of the low marks of American diplomacy. And Boutros-Ghali, sadly, might have been over-sanguine about the sophistication of American statecraft. She felt personally scorned by him, and almost certainly traded his head for her assured confirmation as Secretary of State by the antediluvian isolationist Senator Jesse Helms, Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee.
The French showed their gratitude by appointing him as head La Francophonie, which gave him, if not great power, at least great influence and the ear of some 80 member states. One can be sure that he conveyed an unsentimental view of the strengths and weaknesses of the "indispensable power," as Albright called it.
Ian Williams' new book "UNtold" - a graphic account of the UN, will be coming out from Just World Books in early 2017.
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