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Today Libya, Tomorrow Syria?

20 March 2011

Today Libya, Tomorrow Syria?

By Gwynne Dyer

Last Friday saw the first nationwide protests against the Baath regime in Syria. If these protests develop into a full-scale revolt, the regime’s response may dwarf that of Colonel Gaddafy in Libya.

The last time Syrians rebelled, in the city of Hama in 1982, President Hafez al-Assad sent in the army to smash the insurrection. Hama’s centre was destroyed by artillery fire, and at least 17,000 people were killed.

The current Syrian ruler, Bashar al-Assad, is allegedly a gentler person than his father Hafez, but the Baath Party still rules Syria, and it is just as ruthless as ever. So what happens if the Syrian revolution gets underway, and the Baath Party starts slaughtering people again? Do the same forces now intervening in Libya get sent to Syria as well?

Syria has four times Libya’s population and very serious armed forces. The Baath Party is as centralised and intolerant of dissent as the old Communist parties of Eastern Europe. Moreover, it is controlled internally by a sectarian minority, the Alawis, who fear that they would suffer terrible vengeance if they ever lost power.

The UN Security Council was absolutely right to order the use of “all necessary measures” (meaning armed force) to stop Gaddafi’s regime from attacking the Libyan people. But it does move us all into unknown territory: today Libya, tomorrow Syria?

The “responsibility to protect” concept that underpins the UN decision on Libya was first proposed in 2001 by Lloyd Axworthy, then Canada’s foreign minister. He was frustrated by the UN’s inability to stop the genocides in Kosovo and Rwanda in the 1990s, and he concluded that the problem was the UN’s own rules. So he set out to change them.

The original goal of the United Nations, embedded in the Charter signed in 1945, was to prevent any more big wars like the one just past, which had killed over 50 million people and ended with the use of nuclear weapons. There was some blather about human rights in there too, but in order to get all the great powers to sign up to a treaty outlawing war, there had to be a deal that negated all that.

The deal was that the great powers (and indeed, all of the UN members) would have absolute sovereignty within their own territory, including the right to kill whoever opposed their rule. It wasn’t written quite like that, but the meaning was quite clear: the UN had no right to intervene in the internal affairs of a member state no matter how badly it behaved.

By the early 21st century, however, the threat of a nuclear war between the great powers had faded away, while local massacres and genocides proliferated. Yet the UN was still hamstrung by the 1945 rules and unable to intervene. So Lloyd Axworthy set up the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) to popularize the concept of humanitarian intervention under the name of “Responsibility to protect.”

It was purely a Canadian government initiative. “You can’t allow dictators to use the facade of national sovereignty to justify ethnic cleansing,” Axworthy explained, and so he launched a head-on attack on sovereignty.

The commission he set up concluded, unsurprisingly that the UN should have an obligation to protect people from mass killing at the hands of their own government. Since that could only be accomplished, in practice, by military force, it was actually suggesting that the UN Security Council should have the right to order attacks on countries that indulged in such behaviour.

This recommendation then languished for some years. The most determined opponents of “responsibility to protect” were the great powers – Russian and China in particular – who feared that the new doctrine might one day be used against them. But in 2005 the new African Union included the concept in its founding charter, and after that things moved quite fast.

In 2006 the Security Council agreed that “we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner…should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” And there they are five years later, taking military action against Gaddafi.

Ten out of fifteen Security Council members voted in favour of the action, and the rest, including all four of the emerging great powers, the so-called BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) abstained. But Russia and China didn’t veto the action, because they have finally figured out that the new principle will never be used against them.

Nobody will ever attack Russia to make it be nicer to the Chechens, or invade China to make it change its behaviour towards the Tibetans. Great powers are effectively exempt from all the rules if they choose to be, precisely because they are so powerful. That’s no argument for also exempting less powerful but nastier regimes from the obligation not to murder their own people.

So what about the Syrian regime? The same crude calculation applies. If it’s not too tough and powerful to take on, then it will not be allowed to murder its own people. And if it is too big and dangerous, then all the UN members will express their strong disapproval, but they won’t actually do anything.

Consistency is an overrated virtue.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 8 and 9. (“The original…protect”)

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.

The Mavi Marmara Inquiry: Denying the Obvious

14 August 2010

The Mavi Marmara Inquiry: Denying the Obvious

By Gwynne Dyer

They are all lying, of course. The pro-Palestinian activists who said that the flotilla of ships that tried to breach the Israeli blockade and bring aid to the Gaza Strip had purely humanitarian goals were lying, and so are the Israeli officials who blandly insist that the blockade is solely to stop offensive weapons from reaching the Hamas-ruled enclave. But only the Israeli commandos who seized the ships and killed nine people had guns.

The flotilla had a clear propaganda purpose, seeking a confrontation that would draw attention to the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip and the plight of the Palestinians. The blockade has the clear political purpose of squeezing the million-and-a-half Palestinians in that open-air prison and turning them against the Hamas regime that currently rules them. Nobody wanted it to end in deaths – but there were nine dead civilians and no dead Israelis.

Testifying on 9 August to Israel’s own Commission of Inquiry into the events, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stuck to the script. The Israeli commandos had displayed “exceptional bravery in carrying out their mission and in defending themselves from genuine and lethal danger,” he claimed.

Elsewhere, Netanyahu has referred to the dead activists alternately as “terrorist fanatics” and “mercenaries,” although most people would see these as mutually exclusive categories. Terrorist fanatics don’t usually expect to be paid, whereas mercenaries most definitely do – and both terrorists and mercenaries generally bring something a little more lethal than sticks and iron bars to the party. But let it pass.

Netanyau is just employing the usual tactic of blaming the victims for their own deaths, and that allegation will probably not be challenged by the Israeli inquiry. What the world should be paying attention to is the United Nations inquiry. Or rather, to the one that even Israel cannot ignore.

There are actually two UN inquiries. The first was created by the UN Human Rights Commission, which the Israelis always depict as hopelessly biased. (Its members include Sir Desmond de Silva from Britain, a former undersecretary of the UN and war-crimes prosecutor, and Karl Hudson-Phillips from Trinidad and Tobago, a former judge at the International Court of Justice, but never mind.)

“We are not going to even grace (the UNHRC inquiry) with an official statement,” said an Israeli official. “They are totally irrelevant.” But it is much harder for Israel to ignore the Panel of Inquiry created last week by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, chaired by former New Zealand prime minister Jeffrey Palmer, with Colombia’s outgoing president, Alvaro Uribe, as Vice Chair and official representatives from both Israel and Turkey.
Netanyahu reluctantly agreed to let Israeli officials testify to the UN inquiry – but then insisted that he had a deal with Ban that none of the Israeli commandos involved in the killing would be called before the inquiry. Ban said on 9 August that there was no such deal, and that’s where matters rest today. But the sheer cheek of the Israeli prime minister is astounding: nobody is to be allowed to question the men who actually did the shooting?

Even in Israel’s most devoted allies, the United States and the United Kingdom, soldiers sometimes do extremely brutal and stupid things. The US National Guard killed four anti-Vietnam War protesters at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970, for example, and the British army killed 13 Catholic protesters on Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland in 1972.

Sometimes the soldiers just panic and use far too much force. More often they seize on the pretext of some minor violence by the “activists” to do what they really want to do, which is kill some of them. Then, at the inquiry, they lie about it – and the state, always solicitous of military morale, pretends to believe them.

So we should not expect the UN inquiry to work miracles. It took forty years for Britain to admit the truth about Bloody Sunday, and nobody was ever punished for it. The truth about Ohio came out a lot faster, but nobody was punished for that either. The one big difference here is that whereas the US National Guard killed American citizens, and the British army killed British citizens, the Israeli commandos killed Turkish citizens.

That’s why the UN got involved this time. As to why Netanyahu won’t let any of the commandos be questioned, it’s the usual defensive reflex. He would be better advised to let them be exposed as undisciplined killers – the autopsies on the nine killed revealed thirty bullet wounds, a quarter of them in the back – than to let the blame fall on the Israeli state.

He probably imagines that by refusing Israeli participation in the inquiry, he is ruining its credibility. Not in this case, he isn’t; the deaths speak for themselves. And just as Kent State destroyed US popular support for the Vietnam War and Bloody Sunday killed the myth of a benevolent British army protecting Catholics from Protestants in Northern Ireland, the events on the Mavi Marmara will ultimately end the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 10. (“Elsewhere…pass”; and “Sometimes…them”)

The Treason of the Attorney

1 July 2010

The Treason of the Attorney

By Gwynne Dyer

Eighty years ago, just after the First World War and with the world rapidly sliding towards the next, the French philosopher Julien Benda wrote a book called “The Treason of the Clerks” – “clerks” in the medieval sense, educated men, intellectuals, who despite their high calling chose to serve the State rather than Truth. They were the ones who provided the justification for the wars and made them possible.

Curiously, nobody has ever written a book called “The Treason of the Lawyers.” Nobody has ever accused Lord Goldsmith of being an intellectual, either. But while the Law is not exactly the same as the Truth, it is certainly possible to betray it in the service of the State. That is what Goldsmith did, and it ended in a war.

Goldsmith was the Attorney General, the chief law officer of the British government, when then-prime minister Tony Blair chose to join the United States in the invasion of Iraq. The particular law he betrayed was the most important law of all: the one that outlaws war. The documents that prove it came spilling out last Wednesday.

They were released by the Chilcot inquiry, an official investigation into the British decision to invade Iraq. The key question was: did Tony Blair understand that this war was illegal? The answer turns out to be: he bloody well should have.

Normally, private communications between the attorney general and the prime minister would remain secret forever, but the Chilcot inquiry has released them because arguments about the legality of the Iraq war have a “unique status.” So there it is at last, in black and white: what Goldsmith told Blair before he betrayed the law.

Goldsmith knew that Blair wanted to join President George W. Bush in the attack on Iraq, and that Bush didn’t care a fig for international law. Britain, on the other hand, did, and the attorney general emphasised that Bush did not have a legal leg to stand on. To invade Iraq without an explicit UN Security Council resolution authorising it would be an act of aggression and therefore a war crime.

On January 30, 2003, only fifty days before the invasion, Goldsmith wrote to Blair: ”In view of your meeting with President Bush on Friday, I thought you might wish to know where I stand on the question of whether a further decision of the [UN] Security Council is legally required in order to authorise the use of force against Iraq.”

UN Security Council Resolution 1441, passed in November, 2002, demanded that Iraq open its borders to UN inspectors looking for its alleged “weapons of mass destruction.” The Iraqi WMD did not actually exist, but the Bush-Blair line was that they did, and that they justified an invasion.

However, Resolution 1441 did not authorise an invasion. As the US ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte, said at the time, “[T]his resolution contains no “hidden triggers” and no “automaticity” with respect to the use of force.” If Iraq were not cooperating with the UN inspectors, the matter would return to the Council for further discussions.

Goldsmith told Blair in late January, 2003 that Resolution 1441 was not enough: “My view remains that a further [UN] decision is required.” That was certainly not going to happen soon, because the UN arms inspectors in Iraq were not turning up any evidence of banned weapons – and the United States and Britain had scheduled the invasion for March.

There were half a dozen further written warnings from Lord Goldsmith in the months preceding the invasion, all telling Tony Blair that he must have another Security Council resolution before he could act. Blair would scribble notes like “I just don’t understand this” in the margin of Goldsmith’s memoranda. Eventually, Goldsmith understood that he was displeasing his master.

Then, with no new evidence to justify changing his position, Goldsmith did a complete about-turn in only six weeks, and wrote another memo three days before the invasion of Iraq saying that it was lawful even without another UN resolution. He sold out, and he didn’t even get paid extra for it.

Why does this matter? Because the law matters. Above all, this law matters. It is the law the United Nations was created to enforce: Thou shalt not invade other countries. Not even if they are run by bad people, or claim land that you think should be yours, or pose some real or imaginary danger to your “security”. We have fought wars since forever, but now it’s over. In fact, it’s a crime.

That was the law they made after the Second World War, the worst war in history, which killed up to fifty million people. Like most laws, it isn’t about perfect justice, just about making things safer, but it has probably saved tens of millions of lives over the years. Once or twice, when nuclear war threatened, it may have saved us all

That is the law that Goldsmith betrayed, even though he took it seriously. His US counterparts didn’t even believe in it, so there is no need for an American inquiry to reveal what went wrong in the White House. Just as well, because there wasn’t going to be one anyway.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“Goldsmith…crime”; and “There…master”)

How To Get Out Of Afghanistan

7 October 2009

How To Get Out Of Afghanistan

By Gwynne Dyer

President Barack Obama has just promised not to cut the number of US troops in Afghanistan or pull them out entirely as part of the current review of US strategy there, but he has not promised to increase them. Could he privately be having second thoughts about the whole war?

“The maximum estimate is less than a hundred (al-Qaida members) operating in (Afghanistan), no bases, no ability to launch attacks on us or our allies,” said President Obama’s national security adviser, General James Jones, in an interview on CNN last week. In that case, why does the US c ommander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, want another 40,000 troops?

The Washington orthodoxy insists that there is essentially no difference between al-Qaeda, the mostly Arab organisation that ordered the 9/11 attacks on the United States, and the Taliban, the local Islamist extremists who controlled most of Afghanistan before the US invasion in 2001 and allowed al-Qaeda to have camps there. If the US pulled out of Afghanistan, al-Qaida would be back like a shot.

But hang on. For all practical purposes, the Taliban already DO control at least a third of Afghanistan’s territory. Yet General Jones says that there are fewer than a hundred al-Qaeda operatives in the= Acountry.

Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan, and several other countries each have more al-Qaeda members than that on their territory. They don’t seem to be accomplishing much from those countries, either. So tell me again: why is controlling political outcomes in Afghanistan crucial to American security?

That question may finally be getting posed by the Obama administration. After the shameless rigging of the recent Afghan election by President Hamid Karzai, the US no longer has a credible partner in Kabul. So the current review of US strategy, which until recently was mainly a debate about how much to escalate, is taking on a broader focus.

Last week , General McChrystal again tried to pre-empt Obama’s decision, insisting that more troops are needed in Afghanistan in a speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London and in an interview on the TV current affairs show “60 Minutes.” But this time Defence Secretary Robert Gates rebuked him, saying that “all of us taking part in these deliberations, civilians and military alike,” should “provide our best advice to the President candidly BUT PRIVATELY.” (My emphasis).

Most of the European NATO countries, who still provide almost half the troops in Afghanistan, have grown disenchanted with the mission. Canada, which has lost a higher proportion of troops= 0committed there than anybody else, is bringing its army home in less than two years. Only 26 percent of Americans believe that more troops should be sent to Afghanistan, and support for the war in Congress is fading fast.

This is Obama’s last and best opportunity to escape from the futile war he inherited on taking office. In practical terms, how could he go about it without suffering too great a level of political damage domestically? And how can he avoid what happened in Vietnam, where two-thirds of American casualties were incurred during the five-year search for a way to leave without losing face, AFTER the US had already decided to leave?

The first steps are to reject Gen. McChrystal’s demand for more troops, and to make US displeasure at Karzai’s theft of the Afghan election public. Rather than being embarrassed by the revelations of Peter Galbraith, the American deputy head of the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, who was fired last week for protesting against UN complicity in the electoral fraud, the Obama administration should defend him.

Indeed, Washington ought to attack the head of the UN mission in Kabul, Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon himself for their cynical attempt to suppress the truth. Attacking the UN is always popular in the United States, and it would totally wrong-foot the Republicans.

(Yes, I know that the Obama administration probably gave its blessing to the removal of Galbraith a few weeks ago, when it was still trying to whitewash the Afghan election. But when a government changes course, it often has to deny its past policies – and though the UN officials would be very resentful, they wouldn’t spill the beans on what really happened.)

Those are just the first steps, of course. The longer-term strategy must focus on dismantling the misleading narrative that is used to justify the war in Afghanistan, and indeed the whole “global war on terror.” Washington is full of senior intelligence officials, and senior military officers whose careers have= 0not become indissolubly linked to the GWOT, who would be delighted to assist Obama in that task. Turn them loose.

Meanwhile, start putting together an alliance of non-Pashtun warlords who can make a deal with the Taliban on the division of power in Afghanistan. The Taliban will end up controlling the Pashtun-majority south and east, of course – but for most practical purposes they already do. It doesn’t mean that al-Qaeda gets its training camps back, or becomes any more dangerous to the US than it is now.

Go down that road, and with a little luck all the US troops could be out of Afghanistan before Obama has to face the voters again. But first he has to choose the right road.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 12. (“Most…fast”; and “Yes…happened”)