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The Last Word:  The Security Council Mishandles its Audiences, Dr. Robert Zuber

11 Jun

There is never enough time to say our last word-the last word of our love, of our desire, faith, remorse, submission, revolt.   Joseph Conrad

It takes your enemy and your friend, working together, to hurt you to the heart: the one to slander you and the other to get the news to you.  Mark Twain

That most dangerous of opponents is the one who took pains to comprehend the position of his adversary.  Piers Anthony

One of the many lessons of life that I (and many others) with privilege and access struggle to learn is that, for all of the impediments in the world – the competition for attention or resources and the wildly divergent lenses on reality that give rise to so many of our struggles – the greatest impediments often lie within ourselves.   “The enemy within,” the stuff of literature and legend, is an adversary about which we often seem to know the least. And in a world currently preoccupied with externalizing responsibility rather than accepting it, these knowledge gaps are only likely to grow.

As many of you know, we are regular (and largely grateful) participants in what the Council refers to as its “public” sessions.  As we have noted on other occasions, these meetings are for us a bit like sitting in front of a large picture window through which we can clearly behold a meal we are never invited to join. Indeed, aside from “re-tweets” from select delegations seeking to brand themselves and their ideas – a matter which diplomatic missions have now largely taken into their own hands – we have little interaction with Council members.  They almost never acknowledge our presence in the room, even when we are the only non-diplomatic persons in it.

So why do we sit there, hour after unacknowledged hour, listening as we do to statements that require great attention on our collective part just to find a kernel or two of value or interest that we can transmit to (and beyond) our twitter following? Why do we track conflicts and controversies that routinely appear on the Council’s agenda and that, with some notable exceptions (such as Liberia and Colombia) are often locked within political struggles that prevent successful conflict resolutions or even hopeful transitions?

Some of it, especially for our interns and fellows, is related to the desire to be present at those moments when history is being made – an agreement on Iran’s nuclear capability, a comprehensive plan to degrade ISIL, a first ceasefire in Aleppo, a response to weapons threats by the DPRK.

But more of it is grounded in our organization’s contribution of “attentiveness” based in part on our recognition that the Council’s sometimes arcane working methods and intractable political disagreements can weigh heavily on the rest of the UN’s agenda. When the Council indulges a meaner spirit; when its power imbalances denigrate the prerogatives of its elected members, when Council members allow a few special representatives and other briefers to be “beaten up” by offended states, the discouragement – in my office but also in many parts of the UN system — is more than palpable.   Why, my interns ask, does anyone think this body, behaving in a manner at times invited by its own working methods, is sufficient to solve crises that in some key ways already impact their future?

Some of this discouragement was on display Thursday afternoon during a report on Darfur by the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda.   Her presentation to the Council – and the 25th report on Darfur on which it was based – was a direct challenge to uphold Council resolutions based in part on the “trust” for justice that victims have placed in this body. The report was also recognition that there has been some progress on social, economic and human rights conditions in Darfur.  There has recently been reported, as the prosecutor noted, fewer clashes between the government and insurgents, fewer rapes of women in the displacement camps, fewer denials of access for humanitarian assistance or impediments to the movements of UNAMID peacekeepers.

The prosecutor in so many words reminded the Council of its failure to act in cases of non-cooperation with the Court, such as when states acceding to the Rome Statute allow indicted war criminals such as Sudan’s al-Bashir to travel beyond his own national borders, contravening obligations under the statute to have him arrested and turned over to prosecutors in the Hague.  But in the same session, the prosecutor reminded the Sudanese that while their recent positive overtures are noted, “better” does not imply “sufficient.” Moreover, such positive signs do not in and of themselves constitute pathways to immunity for crimes already committed and for which formal indictments have long since been issued.

Council members are decidedly mixed regarding their reaction to the International Criminal Court with firm supporters such as Italy, Uruguay, France and current Council president Bolivia making appeals for cooperation and resources to skeptical states such as China, Ethiopia, Russia and Egypt.  Some of this skepticism is grounded in a concern, not completely without merit, that ill-timed indictments lacking broad (in this case African) regional support undermine a peace process that is beginning to show progress, a peace that is ultimately in the best interests of Darfur.

But in our hearing, some of this skepticism took on more of the character of permission to “take on” the prosecutor; and the Sudanese Ambassador willingly obliged.  He followed up his own assertion that Madame Bensouda was using “abusive language” directed at both the Council and Sudan by ratcheting up the abusive rhetoric himself – calling for the complete shutdown of this “kangaroo court,” implying that the ICC is incapable of doing its job without “inventing evidence or bribing witnesses,” congratulating the UN secretariat for allegedly “distancing itself” from ICC interpretations, even suggesting that the ICC had met its match and was now “tasting the consequences” from having taken Sudan too lightly.

It was a show of contempt that, sadly, is not without precedent in this Council.  Moreover, in this instance as with too many others, the Ambassador’s remarks went unchallenged.  No one attempted to restore the context of the meeting, let alone defend the reputation of the prosecutor.   The session was quickly brought to a close.   The last word belonged to the Sudanese.

Psychologists have done some good and interesting work on the phenomenon of “the last word,” much of it in the context of arguments across gender lines.   Without diving into this too deeply here, there is broad consensus that the need for the “last word,” is a function of an over-exercised or (ironically) damaged ego: needing to be “right” all the time, or needing reassurance, over and over, that a passionate point of view is “being heard.”  But there is more to it:  the manner in which we humans tend to interpret the silence that too often follows a bold, even reckless accusation.  In that silence there is an assumption of acceptance, an assumption that maybe this last point of view had more going for it than we might have otherwise imagined. And in many instances, it is this last viewpoint – abusive or not, factual or not – that becomes the” take-away” for the audience.

In this Thursday meeting, the Council continued a pattern of institutionalized practice that ensures maximum impact for the opinions and accusations of some of the states that, by their own conduct and even their own admission, have demonstrated more than a bit of contempt for Council resolutions and often for international law itself. Such states certainly deserve to have their say.  They should not, however, be entitled to have the last word.