Tag Archives: DPRK

The Council’s Bully Pulpit: Resolving Tensions Without Inflaming Them, Dr. Robert Zuber

6 Aug


The sanctions will not kill us. It’s apartheid that’s killing us. Oliver Tambo

Knowing what’s right doesn’t mean much unless you do what’s right. Theodore Roosevelt

On this date in 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped by a US war plane on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.  Three days later, a similar bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.  Since that time, endless debates have ensued among some in the academic and policy communities regarding the “necessity” of those bombings (a less persuasive “necessity” in the case of Nagasaki) to bring about a final and decisive end to that Pacific war.

There is no time or place to pursue that discussion here, though it should be noted that a consensus of the learned on the precise motives, objectives and moral equivalences related to those atomic bombings continues to elude.  What we know with greater certainty is the multiple, long-term, devastating effects that emanated from what would today be considered quite modest-sized nuclear explosions.  Indeed, even major nuclear-weapons states that are committed to modernizing their nuclear arsenals and which continue to resist efforts to prohibit or even greatly reduce those arsenals understand the grave (even irreparable) damage their weapons can cause.

One would have to go no further than the Security Council chamber during a rare Saturday afternoon session to see fresh evidence of this concern.   During yesterday’s session, Council members unanimously adopted resolution 2371 which imposes harsh new sanctions (banning exports worth as much as $1 Billion) on the government of North Korea (DPRK) in response to its defiance of previous Council resolutions, specifically regarding its continued testing of ballistic missiles likely now capable of reaching several current Council members with devastating nuclear warheads.

This was the second time in this first week of Egypt’s Council presidency that the matter of sanctions took center stage.   On Wednesday, Egypt convened a discussion on a full range of sanctions-related issues that broke little new ground while holding at least some of the concerns of Council members in sharp relief.  Despite enthusiasm for sanctions as a significant aspect of the Council’s coercive options, and with due respect for the ways in which sanctions regimes have become – slowly but steadily – more accurately “targeted” and more transparent in their criteria (for addition and removal from sanctions lists), many gaps in knowledge, application and trust remain.  Bolivia, for instance, joined with other states in locating sanctions as a measure of “last resort,” with sufficient “due process” for those facing sanctions threats and a rejection of sanctions as a means of “punishment.”  And Ukraine joined with others in insisting on human rights-based sanctions impositions with full, prior attention to the inherent risks of sanctions to civilian populations.

Partially in light of such objections, Italy urged sanctions designs that manifest more “coherence” in terms of means and ends.  Sweden noted the importance of properly applying any response tools to context, while France advocated more “education” to inform member states and the wider public of actions the Council has already taken to increase the “precision” of sanctions towards increasing their effectiveness and legitimacy.  An “impatient” US urged Council members to take better stock of how to enforce resolutions once adopted, a point echoed by Kazakhstan and others.

In the specific instance of the DPRK, despite the unanimous support for the sanctions resolution and all of the post-vote “branding” of diplomats and their positions on twitter, there was no unanimity regarding the role of sanctions in effectively diminishing the grave nuclear weapons threat symbolized by the DPRK’s increasingly successful missile tests.  Sanctions, we were reminded once again by several of the members, are one tool to be used alongside others consistent with both Council wishes and circumstances on the ground.  Sanctions must not inflict needless damage on the citizens of the DPRK who were described yesterday by more than one Council member as already being “enslaved.”   Sanctions must not impede the possibility (however unlikely at present) of direct negotiations between the Koreas and/or with other states.   And sanctions must not be seen as a backdoor justification for militarily provocative operations or other unilateral measures (as noted this week by Bolivia and others) that are only liable to make negotiations less likely and increasingly tougher sanctions (or other coercive measures) that much more inevitable.

Especially in a situation as volatile as the DPRK, where so much of what we “know” about this situation is as much supposition as fact, it is important (and recognized as such by at least several Council members) to proceed with some caution on the imposition of sanctions.  Sanctions should not become (much like peacekeeping operations has been) a default response to states that ignore Council resolutions or otherwise threaten international peace and security.   The UN’s conflict-prevention toolbox is still not fully operational, but it is slowly filling up and the Council must do a better job of leveraging all capacities inside and outside the UN that are relevant to the prevention of hostilities and (hopefully less often) the restoration of stability once security has been breached.

Note was taken several times during this Saturday Council meeting of Kim Jong-Un’s “deadly aspirations.”   This notion could also stand a bit of unpacking.   His “aspirations” certainly involve a growing capacity to inflict mass destruction without prior consultation, but there are surely dimensions to his bluster beyond fomenting ruin.

What was a bit perplexing for us is the way in which some Council members seem to question Kim’s personal and policy sanity while at the same time seeking to surround him with provocations at every turn.  (It is important to bear in mind that the Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, owing in part to a desire/demand for peninsular reunification.)  A politically unresolved war, a country surrounded by factions deemed hostile to its interests, provocative military responses off its shores and facing increasingly harsh sanctions regimes – these may all be at some level legitimate policy responses to DPRK defiance, but they also come with great risk.   We know how wildly bullies can lash out when they feel that they have been effectively cornered.  Assuming there are no military plans contemplated to utterly vanquish the DPRK regime, plans that would probably also result in the commission of war crimes, we should be skeptical at the very least about actions goading the DPRK into a military confrontation that is unlikely to follow any our “best options” scripts.

When Council members raise their hands in unanimous support for a resolution, more than policy consensus is on display.   What many states and other Council watchers also hope for is resolutions based on a robust, baseline knowledge of circumstance and consequence as well as a recipe of responses tailored to context and properly mindful (as China notes often) of the primacy of political settlement. That hope is about more than the will to “take action,” but taking action in a determined but modulated manner so to maximize prospects for dialogue conducive to a sustainable peace, avoiding as much as possible any longer-lasting, toxic side effects.

But is this really happening here?   Are we really asking all the right questions?  Are we aware of the gaps that still remain in our grasp of circumstances and consequences?  Are we pursuing the most comprehensive responses to threats beyond the boundaries of national political expediency?  Are we endorsing responses that can promote behavior change, encourage negotiations, and help ensure that citizens in targeted states are not subject to another round of deprivations?  And are we, as Sweden noted on Saturday, taking sufficient stock of the current risks of “miscalculation” which can ignite conflict that can shatter even the most measured of our threat responses?

On this August 6, we would do well to discern just how much higher the stakes have become for everyone on our planet.  Among all of the existential threats which currently absorb our attention and stretch our collective wisdom up to and beyond its limits, a nuclear exchange with our massive and ever-modernizing warheads would make every other threat even more challenging to address.  We applaud those Council members willing to temper their (legitimate) moral and political outrage over DPRK provocations with the wisdom to keep asking (and demanding answers to) questions related to the Council’s coercive measures and refrain from intensifying the bullying instincts of the DPRK through excessive or unhelpful provocative behaviors of their own.

Travelocity: The Council’s Ticket to Closer Connections to Difficult Security Challenges, Dr. Robert Zuber

6 Mar

As of this writing, Security Council members are in the final stages of a visit to West Africa to confer with regional leaders and assess security arrangements and ongoing threats in countries such as Mali and Guinea-Bissau.

We support such trips as, in the best of circumstances, Council members can both share concerns with political and military leaders (even opposition forces as in Mali), and also get a feel for how tenuous the peace can be in these places despite the Council’s often well-meaning meetings, resolutions and mandates.  It is good that they go, good that they listen, good that capitals experience their concern first-hand.

We look forward to the report on this trip later this month, under Angola’s presidency.   As part of that report, we would appreciate some rationale for the invitation list, specifically why the chair of the Peacebuilding Commission’s Guinea-Bissau configuration, Brazil’s Amb. Patriota, was apparently left off.   Indeed, a meeting of that configuration focused on the political stalemate in that country was held this week prior to the Council’s departure, a meeting which attracted an “A” list group of permanent representatives, virtually all of whom were properly encouraging of Amb. Patriota’s personal involvement with (at least) the Guinea-Bissau portion of the Council’s travels.

Indeed, from our vantage point, and having been present for virtually all recent meetings of this configuration, this would seem to be an opportunity missed.   Closer linkages between the PBC and SC have been called for repeatedly by Ambassadors and featured in SG reports.   These connections are considered essential both to ensuring broader participation by member states in relevant peace and security issues, and in helping to push our conflict-related energies further upstream, balancing our commitments to remedial measures in post-conflict settings with assurances that we will do all that we can — and more than we are currently doing — to fend off conflicts in their earliest stages.

Such assurances, as we have noted many times in the past, require more of us as we seek to become fair, thoughtful and collaboratively-minded brokers of our respective mandates.

This “more” was ably expressed during “Human Rights at work in Peace Operations,” convened by Sweden to look at the human rights implications of peacekeeping operations (including of course the obligation not to abuse the people PKOs are mandated to protect).  During that event Francesco Motta, Head of the Human Rights Component of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, made clear that UN reports must be used to enhance human rights practices and not for UN publicity purposes.  Such reports must have direct application to circumstances on the ground, not only with regard to the values and strategies by which we respond to threats, but as a means for deepening our understanding of the nature and origins of threats.  Extremism did not appear out of nowhere, he advised, and the more we allow ourselves to know about its complex origins (including at times our own facilitating roles), the better we will be able to prevent their recurrence.  This self- and organizational reflectiveness from a human rights officer (and from several of his panel colleagues) was warmly received and rightfully so.

Some of the value of that reflectiveness could have been extended to the pre-trip Council chamber during discussion of resolution 2270 (2016) that tightens sanctions on the DPRK, including restrictions on new categories of exports and providing for the intercepting of DPRK vessels.  The US and China, as the two nations most closely associated with the resolution, had predictably different response to its unanimous passage, though both acknowledged the limited value of previous sanctions regimes to changing DPRK behavior.  The US took the lead in highlighting yet again the many levels of security threats and human rights abuses attributable to DPRK’s leadership.  China, again typically for them, highlighted the need for dialogue and negotiated settlement while noting the grave challenges on their own doorstep represented by some of the belligerent policies emanating from Pyongyang.

Two things particularly struck me from this discussion.  First, despite the many evidences of horrific DPRK behavior noted by the US, other Council members such as Japan, and even from ECOSOC president Oh Joon, there was an underlying if unspoken presumption of “rationality” of the DPRK leadership, some sense that this leadership is capable of internalizing the disapproval of other states and making sound judgments designed to resolve (or at least appease) such disapproval.

This assumption has merit with bratty children desperate for their mothers’ attention or “high maintenance” partners looking for reassurance.  But for bullies harboring what appear to be severe reality deficits, provocation seems always to be lurking in the metaphorical shadows, provocation which can be both a cause of and an excuse for obsessive, abusive, reactive behavior.

Still, regardless of any state sanity misconceptions, it would have been useful to have the DPRK in the Council chamber to gauge their reactions to the resolution, indeed their capacity to respond reasonably (if not positively) to its demands. It is standard Council practice to invite states under consideration – Yemen, Libya, Syria, Sudan, etc. – and then provide them the courtesy of response.  In this instance, as with many other UN deliberations on DPRK, government representatives were nowhere to be found. We have written previously urging the Council to abandon the process of letting erstwhile “offending” states have the “last word” in these formal sessions in part because of the high levels of “spin” characteristic of most of their presentations.  Nevertheless, these appearances are useful both in helping to take the “temperature” of states and to ensure that government officials actually “hear” the concerns of Council members.  Given this, every possible effort should be made to have the DPRK in the room when they find themselves (as they assuredly will) back on the Council’s agenda.

The lessons from this week’s travels and briefings largely confirm lessons of prior weeks:  If we politicize findings of potential mass violence or other security threats; if we protect officials who fail to address human rights abuse allegations forthrightly;  if we turn our backs on complementary capacities (including mediation experts) that can help us fulfill our own mandates (not to mention save lives); if we allow our political lenses to cloud our policy judgments;  if we craft statements or reports that tell the truths that we want others to hear, not the truths they need to hear; if we appear to encourage some abusive state voices while stifling others; then we risk undermining broad confidence in the multilateral structures we still very much need to implement the promises we have already made.

Whether we like it or not, that confidence is now a bit shaky.  We need quickly to demonstrate more resolve to preserve – even enhance — what is left of it.  If we were ever to lose this confidence altogether, we can rest assured that no Council session or overseas mission visit could likely restore it.