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Dodging a Bullet:  The Security Council Saves Itself from Itself, Dr. Robert Zuber

25 Feb

Lincoln on Bullets

We aren’t minded or able to do anything. But where would you like us to send the flowers? Nick Paton Walsh (about Syria)

If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month. Theodore Roosevelt

The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism. Norman Vincent Peale

It is only after one is in trouble that one realizes how little sympathy and kindness there are in the world. Nellie Bly

Most readers of this post are familiar with the notion of “being in trouble” – more often than we wish to admit at our own hands – and of getting out of trouble, often through some stroke of luck or intervention that  seems to come out of nowhere.  We all – me certainly included – are constantly being saved from ourselves by friends and loved ones, even by people who we know less well but who have decided, often based on some legitimate critique, that they have simply had enough of our nonsense.

In the nomenclature of the culture of which I am part, some use the term “dodge a bullet” to describe these moments when the world’s disapproval manages merely to fire warning shots above our mostly distracted heads.  None of us are actually nimble enough to get out of the way of a bullet fired in our precise direction as the horrific school shootings in Florida and too many other places testify.  The metaphor does however imply an awareness of trouble that can lead to different outcomes; perhaps to stay out of the line of fire altogether, or perhaps better, to make the choice to risk getting in the kind of trouble that a number of Stoneman Douglas students have seemingly embraced, trouble in the form of critique that can point the way towards a kinder, saner, less agitated people as well as help to increase the effectiveness of the institutions that are pledged to serve them.

Despite the often-discouraging feeds from our news sources, we have still managed – for now — to escape much of the trouble we might otherwise have found, glancing blows that haven’t inflicted fatal wounds but which can encourage us to step away from the line of fire and commit to a more hopeful course.  The remarkable energy put into the world by the surviving Stoneman Douglas students, and the responses to their pleas to reassess “the invitation to violence” represented by gun proliferation directed towards rightfully embarrassed politicians and corporate leaders, creates a bit of an opening  such that we in the US might start to pull back from a brink of division, distrust and enmity that have for some time threatened to undermine what remains of the best of our values.  There is a glimmer of hope now for a more stable and nuanced approach to weapons and an effort to minimize the suspicion (some of which is not at all irrational) that lies behind their now-obsessive purchase and use.

And, as you might expect, the UN is hardly immune to this need to create new openings for change.  This week, as the latest iteration of Syria horrors hit home, the Security Council tried again to craft a resolution that would both pass muster with delegations and offer hope to residents of Eastern Ghouta and other parts of Syria who have faced unimaginable horror for far too long.

Under the able leadership of Sweden and Kuwait (current Council president), language was put forth in a draft resolution to authorize a 30 day cessation of hostilities that would allow humanitarian access and medical evacuations for persons in besieged areas throughout Syria.  The draft also encouraged de-mining across the country –an essential condition for the safe return of displaced persons to their homes — and it reiterates its demand that all sieges be lifted and all medical facilities be “demilitarized.”

The draft also retained the now-familiar (and still-controversial) caveat that cessation of hostilities does not apply to “military operations” against ISIL and other terror groups “as designated by the Security Council.”  Such caveats have been troublesome in the past as justifications for bombs directed at erstwhile terror groups that may or may not kill terrorists, but which have surely killed and maimed thousands of civilians and destroyed their infrastructure.

We were anticipating action on this draft as early as Thursday, but the delays were both numerous and troubling given that the bombing of E. Ghouta seemed to be intensifying as a resolution authorizing a cessation drew near.   Such delays represented yet another layer of challenge to the considerable diplomatic skills of the sponsors of the draft resolution, Sweden and Kuwait.   We had assumed that the “hold up” was due to an insistence (by Russia most likely) that areas of Syria beyond Ghouta be covered under the resolution’s provisions, and perhaps even reflected some suspicion that humanitarian access would also open pathways for investigations of violations of international law, violations which are both unimaginable and, in our world at this time, not at all confined to Syria.

Finally on Saturday afternoon after another series of false starts, resolution 2401 was adopted.   Sighs of relief were evident, both from the delegations who put in many hours to achieve this agreement and from those who looked on from the Council chamber or shared the experience via twitter (@globalactionpw) or UNTV.   All seemed to understand the implications of another diplomatic failure on Syria.  All felt the pressure to finally, belatedly respond to the misery of Syrians and give often-skeptical observers some reason to believe that the Security Council remains relevant to the prevention of 21st century conflict.  All recognized the bullet that was dodged in this chamber – preserving some modicum of credibility for the UN’s security functions and raising the prospect that desperate persons will finally have some hope of relief.

But the bombs are still falling in E. Ghouta and elsewhere as of this morning, and France has already gone on twitter today to remind us that “full mobilization to implement the resolution” is urgent and essential.   Such implementation is also, as Ethiopia commented on Saturday, a considerable challenge given the “increasingly complex security contexts” that Syria now represents.   And so beyond the categorical defense of its position offered yesterday by Russia and the excessively-moralistic tones uttered in response by the US and UK representatives, the urgent obligation (as noted by the Netherlands and others) is to immediate “action on the ground.”  We will be judged by future generations, France shared in the Council Chamber, and we must fully seize the fragile “glimmer of hope” which this resolution represents.

Indeed, this “glimmer” must somehow guide us on a new and expanded path, offering hope to besieged Syrians but also to people in Yemen (the subject of Council deliberations on Monday), Libya and elsewhere looking to this chamber to demonstrate that resolution 2401 is no outlier, that a cessation of hostilities can become the norm, that we can do much more in every setting wracked by mass conflict than just playing at geo-politics or “sending flowers” to the besieged.

We are living in times where many have concluded that the ”law of the jungle” is the only viable alternative to the failing laws of nations and the international community, that self-protection is the only protection that one can reasonably rely upon, that elections and political dialogue are less effective than weaponry.  In such a world, as the remarkable Nellie Bly noted long ago, sympathy and kindness are likely to be in precious short supply or, at the very most, confined to our increasingly shrinking circles of trust.

These circles cannot be allowed to shrink further, nor thicken in their outer perimeters.  We must urgently, as Sweden’s Ambassador Skoog intimated on several occasions this past week, reimagine our common humanity.  As hard as it is – as hard as we have made it on ourselves – we must also commit fully to implementing our resolutions, to practicing our values, and to seizing every “glimmer” to press our adversaries and ourselves to become the people that can rise above the current constellation of (sometimes self-inflicted) distressing obstacles to peace and tranquility.

If not, the next bullet speeding in our general direction is one we might not be fortunate enough to dodge.