Sunday, June 24, 2007

The UN, Ban the Middle East

Following on the solid doubts about Tony Blair's ability to make peace in the Middle East, is is my piece in the Chatham House publication World Today worrying about whether the current policies of the UN have enough credibility to do so.

The World Today |July 2007

The United Nations Secretariat has become an uncritical instrument of Israeli and American policies in the Middle East, says a senior official in his resignation report, which also warns of much wider consequences.
From Ian Williams in New York.

Alvaro De Soto, the United Nation’s special representative for the Middle East Peace Process, resigned from his post and the organisation in May, for reasons he explained in his subsequently leaked end of mission report. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon’s spokeswoman refused to comment on the contents since, she said, it was confidential and represented de Soto’s personal views. That left unanswered the critical questions that the incisive, evenhanded and remarkably readable document raised about the role of the organisation, the Secretary-General and the Quartet – The European Union (EU), Russia, the United States and the UN – in the Middle East

De Soto claimed the tipping point for his resignation was when, on his visit to the region on March 25, Ban introduced ‘out the blue’, conditions for whether he would meet the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority in future, thus sabotaging UN efforts to lead the rival Palestinian organisations Hamas and Fatah towards a solution.

Ban is a person of high principle – he has endorsed an international moratorium on the death penalty, for example, which is hardly music to Texan President George Bush’s ears – but somehow, with limited experience of the Israel-Palestine question. ‘He just does not get it. He sees Israel as South Korea and the Palestinians as the North. And the US as on the side of the angels’, one exasperated UN official suggested.

But that March visit had in many ways epitomised a qualitative shift in the UN Secretariat’s attitude to the problem. For example, attempts to get Ban to go to Gaza and see conditions at first hand, were thwarted by Israeli diplomats exploiting to the full their ‘unprecedented access’, as de Soto puts it, to the receptive Korean phalanx around Ban, which allows the Israeli mission input in sifting new appointees to exclude any hint of old-style, pro-Arabist thinking.
So Ban’s restricted vision is unlikely to be challenged by alternative advice from within. Israel’s view, backed by the US, and effectively unchallenged by other major powers, has led to decisions on the Middle East that will further cocoon him.
De Soto himself complains in his report that he was excluded from the meetings that Ban’s team held in the region, and that he was so far out of the loop that the Israelis were informing him about Secretariat discussions in New York. He complains that ‘the Israeli mission to the UN has unparalleled access in the Secretariat even at the highest levels, which leads to ‘a seeming reflex…to ask first how Israel or Washington will react rather than what is the right position to take’.
Ironically, one of the new appointees who seem to have a more objective and even-handed view is B Lynn Pascoe, the former American Ambassador to Indonesia whose appointment to head the United Nations Department of Political Affairs caused fears of unmitigated American dominance.

Potent Leverage

For many years, at Israeli insistence, the UN was excluded from the Middle East peace process. In part this was an understandable Israeli reaction to the 1975 ‘Zionism is Racism’ Resolution 3379 and the marginalisation of the country inside the organisation, for example its exclusion from regional groupings that are essential to hold any elected positions.
On the other hand, it was Israel’s prevarication about acceptance of UN decisions, on the occupation of Palestinian areas, the Israeli settlements, the return of refugees, the status of Jerusalem and similar issues, which contributed both to its isolation and also to its determination to marginalise the organisation’s role.
On the other side, in the 1990s the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) mission in New York realised that it was precisely the legitimacy and force of UN decisions and international law that provided the Palestinians’ most potent leverage in negotiations. The absence of all but a handful of embassies from Jerusalem is a reminder to both Israelis and Palestinians that, no matter how marginal it may appear at times, the UN does indeed have, in former Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s terms ‘a unique legitimacy.’ Israel’s borders and claims even to West Jerusalem will never be recognised without a UN decision.
The Palestinian mission secured restatement and expansion of those UN positions, for example with a meeting of states which are party to the Geneva Conventions on Occupied Territories to rebut the Israeli position that these were ‘disputed’ territories to which the Conventions did not apply, and most importantly, securing an advisory judgment from the International Court of Justice on the illegality of the separation wall in the West Bank.
Above all, the Palestinians looked to the UN to hold the green line, as it were. Their negotiators were prepared to haggle about the final borders, but only from the secure base of acceptance of the 1949 armistice line. Indeed, they felt that even this was a painful concession, since it involved abandoning the 1947 partition lines, which in turn, most Palestinians had regarded as inequitable whatever the legality.

Washington’s Wants

Almost in parallel with the PLO’s efforts, Annan worked hard to legitimise Israel’s position within the UN system, in part because he thought it was the right thing to do, but also as part of his efforts to construct a supportive constituency for the UN in the American political system.
He was relatively successful in this, and it certainly stood him in good stead when most influential American Jewish organisations refused to join the witch- hunt over abuses of the Iraq Oil-for-Food programme. De Soto decided the Quartet was a ‘vindication and culmination of SG Annan’s risky but successful effort…to regain Israel’s confidence.’
No Secretary-General can work successfully without reasonable relations with Washington, but Washington’s unreasonable demands of total fealty would test the skills of the most adroit tight rope walker in balancing between UN decisions and international law on the one hand, and Washington’s wants on the other. That is particularly true when the US and Israel so often stand in total isolation, apart from a few dependent island microstates.
In general, despite the pressures, Annan maintained a degree of impartiality, even if it sometimes had to be extracted as painfully as a wisdom tooth, as when the BBC wrested from him an admission that the Iraq war was ‘illegal’.
In the case of Israel, Annan’s balance took the form of gentle reminders that there were indeed UN decisions, and that the rights of the Palestinians did have to be taken into account. Even so, de Soto points out that it was Annan who initially restricted his contacts with Syria and the Palestinian Authority.

Free Pass

Certainly since September 11 2001 and the ‘war’ on terror there has been a global shift of support. Israel is now committing acts in the Territories, implicitly condoned by the EU and the Quartet for which it came under Security Council censure before 2001.
The role of Britain has also changed. While once it would support resolutions condemning Israeli actions even in the face of an American veto, it now abstains or opposes. That has had an effect on EU policy as well: German diplomats have complained that they cannot be seen as being more critical of the Jewish state than the British, so the former European even-handedness has also shifted towards a pro-American, pro-Israeli position.
As a result, de Soto says the Quartet’s statements have transformed it from ‘a negotiation-promoting foursome guided by…the Road Map, into a body that was all-but imposing sanctions on a freely elected government of a people under occupation as well as setting unattainable preconditions for dialogue.’ He adds, ‘There is no getting around the reality that the Quartet – Russia and the UNSG – provides a shield for what the US and the EU do.’
‘The absence of any complaint or criticism by the Quartet has in effect given Israel a free pass, enabling them to argue that withholding these monies [Palestinian tax revenues] is in conformity with Quartet policy’, he argues, even as he demonstrates that it is not. In contrast, he asserts that Quartet policy has taken ‘all pressure off Israel,’ and the ‘settlement enterprise and barrier construction has continued unabated’.
That was already the case under Annan, but even so, Ban’s team seems to have fallen off the rope on the Middle East issue. De Soto sardonically claims that ‘A Sherlockian magnifying glass’ is needed to ‘detect the allusions to Israel’s total non-compliance with its Road Map obligations’, in the Quartet’s February 2 statement, which obliquely urged ‘the parties to refrain from taking any measures that could predetermine the number of issues that will be resolved in negotiations.’
This, he says is ‘the high point of evenhandedness of 2007 so far,’ which ‘began to wane toward the end of 2005 and continued to wilt throughout 2006,’ but he adds, ‘has been pummelled into submission in an unprecedented way since the beginning of 2007.’

Question of Trust

In his conclusions de Soto warns that if the Secretary-General ‘is swayed, or seen to be swayed, by one or the other member state, other members, and indeed any party to a conflict susceptible of being entrusted to the Secretary-General’s good offices will justifiably hesitate to deposit that trust in him.’ As he says, the Secretary-General ‘has the duty to uphold international law, and more particularly UN resolutions.’ De Soto points out the wider implications for his role on other conflicts and for UN staff working in the region if he does not. It is ‘a heavy burden on the SG, for which he will be accountable to history,’ he warns.
It is possible that as reality intrudes into the cocoon on the 38th floor of the UN headquarters that the Secretary- General can see the implications. Someone who has spent months in conversation with President Omar Al Bashir of Sudan over Darfur, despite his clear role in crimes against humanity, must surely appreciate that he should not exclude talks with Hamas leaders simply because of western and Israeli refusal to accept an elected government.

1 comment:

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