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Security Council

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Conquest Is Always An Option

When President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Monday affirming Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, there was an outcry that went far beyond the Arab world. His action went against the international rule on the ‘inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force’, we were told – conquest, in less lawyerly language. Alas, that is just an ideal, not a hard-and-fast international law.

The Golan Heights, which belonged to Syria, were part of Israel’s conquests in the 1967 war. Israel returned most of Egypt’s lost territory (except the Gaza Strip) in the 1979 peace agreement, but continues to occupy the lands it conquered from Jordan and Syria 52 years later. The only part it has annexed according to Israeli law, however, is the Golan Heights.

As far as Israel is concerned the issue was closed in 1981, although nobody else in the world accepted the annexation, not even its greatest ally, the United States. They all went on referring to the ‘occupied territories’, including the Golan Heights, as defined in UN Security Council Resolution 242 – but Israel didn’t care, and the legal issue was sidelined for another 38 years.

The only reason Trump has now ‘recognised’ the Golan Heights as Israeli territory is to give a little electoral boost to his good buddy, Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is facing corruption charges that might lose him the election on 9 April. It doesn’t change the legal situation as far as everybody else is concerned, nor does it make Israel’s hold on the territory more secure.

What guarantees Israel’s position in the Golan Heights is a crushing superiority in military force , and the same is true of most other occupied territories around the world. There is text in the United Nations Charter (Art. Two) requiring all members to refrain “from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state,” but it’s a pious hope, not a universally enforced law.

When there is a conquest, the victim is expected to take action itself if possible, as Britain did when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. It will probably get some legal cover from international law, but it is unlikely to get military aid unless it is in other countries’ interests to give it.

Such interests WERE engaged in the 1990-91 Gulf War, when Iraq conquered Kuwait. For strategic reasons (i.e. oil), many Arab and Western countries volunteered military forces to reverse that conquest – and they got legal cover from the UN too, for what it was worth.

But when it’s a great power doing the invading, like China in Tibet (1950), the Soviet Union in Afghanistan (1979), or the United States in Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), and Iraq (2003), the UN is paralysed by Security Council vetoes and most other countries lie low. The invaders have no legal cover, but that doesn’t stop them.

When non-great powers invade, like the Indonesian seizure of Timor or the Moroccan annexation of Western Sahara, both in 1975, there will be no outside help for the victim unless some great power cares about it – or unless the local people can wage a guerilla war long enough to make the conqueror cut its losses and go home. They succeeded in Timor; they failed in Western Sahara.

There has been a major effort to shrink the role of force and expand the rule of law in international affairs since the Second World War. That war frightened the people in charge enough that they were willing to consider fundamental changes to their old way of doing business, and to some extent they succeeded. This is the most peaceful era in human history.

But it is not actually peaceful, and the project everybody signed up for in 1945 is still very much a work in progress. Trump would quite like to wreck it entirely, as in his view it’s just another part of ‘globalisation’, but there is little chance that he will succeed. He just doesn’t have the leverage.

Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights makes the simultaneous American campaign to reverse the Russian annexation of Crimea look hypocritical, but that campaign wasn’t getting any traction anyway. Similarly, it hasn’t sabotaged the much-trumpeted Trump peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because that wasn’t going anywhere either.

Everybody in the Arab world already knows that Trump is completely loyal to Israel, if only because that is the best way to get the votes of US evangelical Christians. Nobody expects anything to come from his Middle East ‘peace plan’, if it ever sees the light of day. On the shock-horror scale, this whole episode rates about 2 out of 10.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 9. (“When…Sahara”)

The Next Secretary-General: No Charisma Required

It’s not an election, it’s a Selection. And although all the countries in the United Nations General Assembly have equal rights, some are more equal than others.

Ban Ki-moon retires at the end of this year, and it’s time for the United Nations to choose a new Secretary- General. By the end of this year’s session of the General Assembly, ends in early October, we will know who it is. Which raises two questions: how do they make
the choice, and why should anybody care?

The secretary-general of the United Nations is, in some senses, the highest official on the planet, but the selection process is hardly democratic. In fact, it has traditionally been a process as shrouded in secrecy as a papal conclave.

It is the Security Council’s fifteen members who pick the candidate, although all 192 members of the General Assembly then get to vote on their choice. And even on the Security Council, it’s only the views of the five permanent members (the P5) that really count, because each of the five great powers has a veto and the others don’t.

This is why people with strong opinions and a record of taking decisive action don’t get the job. That sort of person would be bound to annoy one of the P5 great powers – Russia, Britain, China, France and the United States – or even all of them one after the other, so the entire system is designed to prevent a maverick with big ideas from slipping through.

The secretary-general must never come from one of the great powers (that might give him access to enough resources to make a nuisance of himself), and the successful candidate should not be charismatic. The final choice is usually a “safe pair of hands”, some blameless diplomat from a middle or smaller power like the incumbent, a career diplomat from South Korea who ranks 32nd on the Forbes list of The World’s Most Powerful People.

Candidates therefore tend to be relative unknowns. If you look through the current list of candidates, for example, the only two names you might recognise, even if you are a political junkie, are former New Zealand prime minister, Helen Clark, now Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, and Antonio Guterres, former prime minister of Portugal and later UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

But who is Irina Bokova, Natalia Gherman, or Igor Luksic? They are, in that order, a former acting foreign minister of Bulgaria, the current foreign minister of Moldova, and a former foreign minister of Montenegro. Well, all right, Bokova is also the current director-general of UNESCO, but you still didn’t know her name, did you?

Why so many Eastern Europeans (eight of the twelve candidates come from that region)? Because it’s Eastern Europe’s “turn” this time. That region always missed out until the end of the Cold War, because the countries of Eastern Europe were effectively under Soviet control and therefore contravened the unwritten “no sec-gen from a great power” rule.

You might also ask why Eastern Europe is a whole separate region at all, given that its total population from Poland to Bulgaria is less than the population of Bangladesh, Brazil, Indonesia or Pakistan. Same reason: it used to be seen as a separate region because it was occupied by Soviet troops and most of its governments were ultimately controlled from Moscow. History looms very large at the UN.

There is some progress. Half of this year’s candidates are female, and there is a strong feeling around the UN that it is high time for a woman to become secretary-general. There is also an attempt this time to make the process more “transparent”, but it is otherwise unchanged. The Security Council still comes up with a single candidate who doesn’t offend any of the great powers, and the General Assembly then rubber-stamps its choice.

It’s basically a civil service job, suitable for persons of cautious disposition. How could it be otherwise? You only get what you pay for, and no great power is yet ready to pay the price in terms of its own sovereignty of having a powerful independent leader at the United Nations.

What would be the point of choosing such a leader anyway, so long as the UN has no military forces or financial resources of its own? It would only lead to frustration: the secretary-general can’t act independently of the will of the great powers because they designed it that way.

The job is still worth doing, and there is never a shortage of applicants. The secretary-general can speak out as the conscience of the world when there are massive violations of human rights, and once in a while she can actually organise a peace-keeping mission to stop the horrors (if all the great powers agree).

And she becomes, by virtue of her position, the most striking symbol of that more cooperative, less violent world that most politicians, diplomats and ordinary citizens actually aspire to. But we are still a very long way from the promised land.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“Why…UN”)

The Syrian Tragedy

30 January 2012

The Syrian Tragedy

By Gwynne Dyer

“The Security Council cannot go about imposing solutions in crisis situations in various countries of the world,” said Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, as the UN began discussing what to do about the Syrian crisis last Friday. He needn’t worry. Even as Syria drifts inexorably towards a catastrophic civil war, nobody else is willing to put troops into the country, so how are they going to impose anything?

You can’t blame them for their reluctance, because Syria isn’t Libya. It is a big country with a powerful army, the core of which will remain loyal to the Assad regime right down to the last ditch. A good 30 percent of the civilian population will join them in the ditch: the Alawites (Shia), the Christians, and some of the Kurds and Druze, all of whom fear that the overthrow of the regime will put the Sunni Arab majority in the driving seat.

That’s where they should be, of course – they are at more than 70 percent of the population – but when revolutions triumphed recently in Tunisia and Egypt, the subsequent elections brought explicitly Islamic parties to parties. There’s no evidence that those parties will actually abuse the civil rights of minorities, but given the increasingly sectarian nature of the struggle in Syria, the minorities there are frightened by the prospect of Sunni power.

So the minorities will stick with President Bashar al-Assad no matter what his forces do to the Sunnis, and there are enough of them, given the regime’s virtual monopoly of heavy weapons, to hold out against either domestic insurgency or foreign military intervention for a long time. That’s why there won’t be any foreign military intervention.

But it’s getting worse in Syria. Several suburbs of Damascus itself have now fallen into rebel hands, and Assad’s forces are shelling neighbourhoods only 5 km. (3 mi.) from the centre of the city. Since last March, about 5,400 people have been killed by the regime’s military and paramilitary troops, and the 200 observers sent by the Arab League in December didn’t even slow the rate of killing.

In desperation, the Arab League suspended its monitoring mission last week and called for Bashar al-Assad to hand over power to a deputy within two weeks. That deputy would then be obliged to form a unity government with the opposition within two months. In other words, it demanded the end of the regime.

In fact, the Arab League has even drafted a joint resolution with Britain, France and Germany that threatens unspecified further measures against the Syrian regime if Assad does not step aside. Nabil al-Arabi, the head of the Arab League, is in New York this week to present it to the Security Council in person.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the Syrian regime has already rejected the Arab League’s demand, insisting that what’s really happening in Syria is attacks by “armed terrorist gangs” (i.e. al-Qaeda) backed by Israel and the United States. Ridiculous, but a lot of Alawites and Christians actually believe it.

The worse news is that Russia will veto the resolution before the Security Council anyway. Assad is Moscow’s only real ally in the Middle East, and Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean is on the Syrian coast. Bad Moscow – but the truth is that foreign military intervention would probably not stop the killing at this point unless it was truly massive. That wouldn’t happen even with a dozen Security Council resolutions.

The worst news of all is that this probably means that Syria is heading down into the same kind of hell that Lebanon went through in its fifteen-year civil war (1975-90).

It has just gone on too long. The Syrian protests began as a brave attempt to emulate the non-violent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. The Assad regime would kill people, of course, but if the protesters stood fast and refused to kill back, ultimately the regime’s support would just drain away. Non-violence was doubly important in the Syrian case, because if it were a violent revolution various minorities would feel gravely threatened.

Alas, that non-violent strategy has foundered on the rock of Syria’s sectarian and ethnic divisions. Sunni deserters from the army started fighting back, and all the other communities took fright. Now it’s a civil war in which the regime has the heavy weapons but the Sunni Arabs have the numbers.

Syria is just as complex a society as Lebanon, although we can still hope that the war does not go on as long. And it’s entirely possible that the Assad regime, whose senior ranks are mostly drawn from the Alawite minority (only 10 percent of the population), has deliberately chosen civil war. Better that than surrender power and expose the Alawites to the vengeance they fear from all those whom they have ruled for the past forty years.

This does not mean that the “Arab spring” was a mistake, or even that it is over. Few other Arab countries have as divided a population or as ruthless a regime as Syria. But it is still a great tragedy.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 13. (“In desperation…regime”; and “Syria…years”)

 

 

Obama, Bush (Senior) and Libya

4 April 2011

Obama, Bush (Senior) and Libya

by Gwynne Dyer

 Once upon a time, a U.S. president was appalled by the actions of a murderous Arab dictator. He got the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution authorizing the use of force to stop the dictator, put together a coalition of NATO and Arab countries, and did precisely that. Sound familiar?

The president’s name was George Herbert Walker Bush, and the Arab dictator was called Saddam Hussein. Saddam had invaded the sovereign state of Kuwait, and the U.N. authorized Bush to drive him out again. It did not authorize him to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam – so he didn’t.

The senior Bush has been vilified ever since for sticking to the letter of the U.N. resolution, and not using his army to overthrow Saddam Hussein when he had the chance. What are the odds that President Barack Obama will do the same and not overthrow Moammar Gadhafi in Libya? Pretty good, if you believe what he says.

“Our military mission is narrowly focused on saving lives,” Obama said in his speech on March 28, denying that the real goal of the air campaign against Gadhafi’s military forces was regime change. The United States had acted militarily because it “refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action,” but there would be no foreign troops in Libya and no direct attempt to overthrow Gadhafi.

If Obama sticks to that resolve, then there is a very good chance that Gadhafi will still be in power, in the western half of a divided Libya, five years from now. The cities of Tripolitania (western Libya) have already been reduced to submission by his forces, with the sole exception of Misrata, as the rebels in Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) show no sign of being able to defeat his army in the field.

Should Gadhafi try once more to reconquer Cyrenaica, then the air-power of the coalition (basically the NATO countries but also including a few Arab countries) will stop him again. But if he just consolidates his hold on the west, who’s going to force him out? Certainly not the hysterical rabble of rebel fighters who repeatedly charge west along the coast highway, and then come fleeing back as soon as they stumble into the first ambush.

U.S. troops could easily drive Gadhafi from power if they were let off the leash, but Security Council Resolution 1973 does not permit the entry of foreign troops into Libya. Moreover, no Arab country wants to see this too-familiar sight once again.

If Obama abides by the terms of the U.N. resolution, however, he is likely to end up in the same awkward position as his predecessor, President George H.W. Bush. He will have sent U.S. forces into battle, and yet he will not have got rid of the bad guy. But is that such a terrible thing?

George Bush senior was acting to repel an unprovoked invasion when he committed American forces to the liberation of Kuwait, but he was also trying to restore the role of the U.N. Security Council as the bulwark against aggressive war. The Cold War had just ended, and Saddam’s invasion of Iraq was an opportunity to demonstrate how the system should work.

That’s why the senior Bush would not exceed the limits of his authority as an enforcer of the U.N. rules against aggression. The U.N. had not authorized him to overthrow Saddam, and so he did not. He then muddied the waters by calling on the Kurds and Shias of Iraq to rebel, and standing by while Saddam massacred them, but that does not invalidate his original decision.

Fast forward 20 years, and Barack Obama is trying to enforce a fragile new U.N. rule: that the Security Council may authorize military intervention if massive abuses of human rights are being committed by the government. He has carried out the intervention, and the wholesale massacres that would probably have occurred if Gadhafi’s troops had overrun Cyrenaica have been averted.

That’s the limit of Obama’s U.N. mandate, so, like George H.W. Bush, he should now stop. The aerial campaign was meant to prevent mass killing, not to provide the rebels with close air support in what has become a civil war.

One side in this civil war is run by a brutal and cynical dictator, while the people on the other side are brave idealists seeking democracy, but that doesn’t mean that foreigners should decide the outcome. That would be contrary to international law – and besides, if there is to be a real democratic revolution in Libya, then the Libyans must do it for themselves.

If that means that Libya must spend some months or years as a divided country, with the western half still under Gadhafi’s yoke, then so be it. The only legitimate tools that foreigners may use against him are financial sanctions, trade boycotts and diplomatic isolation.

Cut off his cash flow, and Gadhafi might fall quite quickly. Or he might not, which would be a pity. But the only reason that Resolution 1973 got the support of the Arab League, and abstentions by China, Russia and India, was that it authorized military action to “protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack.” And that is all that the coalition should do.

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