Wednesday, June 08, 2016
Arabs and UNSC
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June/July 2016, pp. 44-45
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!” ◙