Council of Doom

20 Jul

For the first time at least in our memory, the Security Council had two discrete ’emergency’ meetings last Friday -one focused on the downing of the Malaysian Airliner and the other on the escalating violence in Gaza occasioned by frightening waves of Hamas rockets and the Israeli decision to launch an invasion into an area that the French Ambassador described as ‘an open air prison.’

It was a long and largely unsatisfying day for Council members and others in chambers. USG Jeffrey Felton had the unenviable task of briefing the Council at both meetings, needing to sound fair and competent in his judgments as events swirled and condemnations of all kinds escalated alongside the horrific images of violence and wreckage.

There certainly were important insights communicated by Council members over this long day of painful disclosures.  Chile’s Ambassador made the unusual request for the Council to rethink the way in which it engages mediation. Jordan’s Ambassador noted the ‘suffocating’ misery in Gaza and demanded that Hamas accept the Egyptian cease fire plan.  The Palestinian Ambassador read off the names of several of the victims (including many children) killed in the Gaza assault.   On Ukraine there were many strong calls for fact-finding and accountability for perpetrators, even if some might have “jumped the gun” when it came to anticipating culpability.

Perhaps the most poignant and sensitive comment was made by the Ambassador of the Netherlands, the country that of course suffered the most casualties from the downing of the Malaysian airliner.   Ambassador van Oosterom vividly described the ‘darkness’ that had descended over his country, but he refused to engage in condemnation pending a thorough investigation into the causes of the crash.   Argentina and others directly supported this profound and mature response amidst deep national mourning.

As we listened over several hours, we wondered (as we often do) how these Council discussions are ‘playing’ to a global public increasingly fearful and frustrated at state and non-state actors’ growing recourse to aggression and disregard for international law.   Indeed, on this day there were several pointed critiques of Council processes.  The Palestinian Ambassador, speaking directly to people back home, told them that they have ‘every right’ to be angry with the Council. Earlier in the day, Malaysia warned the Council that it badly needs to ‘step up its game’ in Ukraine and echoed calls by other states that more must be done to stem prospects for new levels of violence occasioned by what Nigeria referred to as this  ‘apocalyptic’ event.

Despite these passionate remarks, the day was given over to largely redundant statements rather than concrete proposals that could reassure onlookers that the ‘maintenance’ of international peace and security remains in good hands. In fairness, even legitimate caution by Council members is anathema to those thirsty to ‘do something,’ persons whose ‘narratives’ regarding the causes of one or another theater of violence admit of little or no compromise.  Much like the rest of the UN, the Council has to accommodate a variety of perspectives and strategies and, despite its coercive mandate, cannot always move forward with a resolve needed by victims and respected by their advocates.

That said, after hours of statements on Friday, the conclusion is hard to ignore that ‘concern’ and even indignation used up most of the energy that would have been better served by strategic engagement linked to public reassurance.  Few Council members, especially permanent ones, seem able to resist the political spinning of crises for national gain.  Too many in the global public now anticipate ‘spin’ even at those times when Council members do their best to avoid it.

It is a bit unseemly that an air tragedy and an invasion do not seem sufficient to evoke even modest reflection on how Council working methods might be shortchanging anxiety levels of the global community.   Neither has growing chaos in Libya nor late arriving peacekeeping operations to quell the catastrophe in Central African Republic seemed sufficient to force the Council to reexamine its capacity for vigilant and preventive action.  After many statements of interest and concern, successful crisis strategies for both Ukraine and Gaza seemed painfully beyond the available operational skills and capacities of this Council.  More than anything else the public now needs assurance that the Council has what it takes to resolve such disputes or, at a minimum, can describe what else is needed beyond its own resolutions and coercive mandates.

Of course, much of what the Council says and does regarding crises remains beyond the reach of onlookers, and this certainly applies to our office as well.  Like others, we essentially have a prime viewing perch to witness a process about which we have little if any impact. But we know what we see, and what we see now is insufficient diplomatic engagement coupled with a deficit of forthrightness regarding our failures to protect and prevent and what can now be done about each.

It is a gloomy time in the Council.   Even the leaders of the most powerful nations seem overwhelmed by the fires burning in so many corners of the world.  In this space we will soon share some modest recommendations to help reduce combustibility and restore the reputation of the Council to a level at least generally commensurate with its Charter authorization.

Dr. Robert Zuber

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