Tag Archives: Middle East

Monster Mash: Vanquishing a Generation-Defining Conflict, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Nov

Godzilla

At the heart of all anger, all grudges, and all resentment, you’ll always find a fear that hopes to stay anonymous.  Donald L. Hicks

Hiding from the monsters only made them stronger.  C.L. Wilson

May we find the language that takes us to the only home there is –one another’s hearts.   Ibtisam Barakat

We need an immunization program, one that injects people with respect, dignity, and equality, one that inoculates them against hatred.  Izzeldin Abuelaish

Occupation exposes us very young to the extremes of our emotions, until we cannot feel except in the extreme.  Susan Abulhawa

Why don’t they want to let others in? Well, sometimes because they’re shy, and sometimes because they’re convinced of their own superiority. But those aren’t the only reasons. Sometimes it’s because they have something to hide.  Lauren Myracle

This was one of those weeks at the UN when there was so much to reflect upon and write about:  the role of special procedures in the upholding of human rights; the conditions of prisons that inflame the extremism we must do more to suppress; the carnage in Syria made even more complex by Turkish forces, Russian targets and US oil grabs; the street protests from Hong Kong and Iraq to Bolivia and Lebanon that are exposing once again the trust deficits that define so much of modern governance.

One of our interns is now preparing a piece on the protest movements that will soon appear in this space.  I am instead going to dive into a space that is both raw and crowded, a space that has resisted policy correction for as long as I have been alive, a space full of hundreds of policy wonks and many thousands of oft-muted voices who can now only “feel in the extreme;” these along with others who make a living highlighting abuses and offering policy alternatives to this wound that simply will not heal and, indeed, that too many of the rest of us will not allow to heal.

I’m speaking of course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I am fully aware of the pitfalls of wading into this space.  Our twitter and email accounts are already filled with people struggling (often-legitimately) over land, over rights, over governance, over control of a narrative that has too often been appropriated by people like me.  From Myanmar to Cameroon, we are often – and legitimately – chided for our incomplete understandings, for our erstwhile failures of courage and conviction, for the gaps we minimize between our allegedly bloated access and our generally deficient experiences.   We plead “no contest” to all of that.

And yet we do have a responsibility to reflect as we sit in rooms (such as with the General Assembly Fourth Committee this week) where diplomats take up the “Palestinian cause” with both intermittent vigor and a narrative that heralds few, if any breakthroughs.  We do have a responsibility to comment (as do others) on discussions that are mostly about, as Senegal noted earlier this week, indulging a “longstanding UN habit of passing resolutions designed to improve the lot of the Palestinians, and then failing to implement them,” the consequence of which is to leave the youth of Palestine (and many other regional youth) “forever marked.”

Indeed, one by one, delegations take the floor in these settings to highlight and condemn abuses in well-worn formulas.  Surely there is little news here, aside from the “news” that, session after session and year after year, we are failing in our responsibility to put an end to a conflict that attracts significant diplomatic energy but little diplomatic resolve.  And every year that we fail in our duty, the “political horizon” embedded in so many GA statements recedes further and further behind the clouds.

Indeed, having sat through literally hundreds of sessions like those this week, there is a sameness of perspective and approach that is as likely to deaden resolve as inflame its potential.  As South Africa noted this week referencing its own path to freedom, “we were able to liberate ourselves,” in part because of the “indignation that is largely absent” in the instance of the Palestinians.  Indeed, the statements read out during these sessions, often by younger diplomats who are not responsible for their content and who are commenting on a conflict that long predates them, often share too much text “condemning” the occupying power without taking a longer view on a responsibility that is also shared, the “monsters” that are also about us and from which we continue to hide.

Some of the things that strike my interns when they sit through these discussions are, I think, germane to this current discussion.  They note, for instance, the frequency with which Israel is admonished (and rightly so) for its practices but by states guilty of some of the very same practices.  For instance, the statement delivered this week in the 4th Committee by Saudi Arabia on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement rejecting the practices of “torture and assassination” by Israel was the right call but the wrong look.

Our interns often and rightly highlight the lack of concrete suggestions, let alone commitments, on the part of most of the delegations which take the floor.  And they also have come to recognize that “condemnation” is not in any way a valid commitment.  Indeed, it is an indulgence that has little to no practical impact aside from driving a deeper wedge of distrust between the parties, lengthening the distance to language that “takes us to the home of one-another’s hearts.”  Moreover, while condemnation might evoke some acknowledgment of guilt in the short term, its impact decreases as its use increases.  This is true with individuals and even more so with states.

Indeed, such condemnation could be viewed (and we would do so) as a “substitute” for meaningful engagement.  One thing that observers to these discussions become aware of quickly is their utter lack of practicality. We are reminded of the old adage that “everyone complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it.”  There is a deep suspicion among those of us who follow the dialogue regularly, both in the GA and in the Security Council, that the desire to actually resolve this conflict, to actually move beyond settlements and blockades and rocket launches and generations forsaken, that desire, that “indignation” against the perpetuation of the long stalemate, is simply lacking.  We hear the reports of fresh violence, fresh settlements, fresh assaults on human dignity by UN Special Coordinator Mladenov and others, and we will do so again in the Security Council this week; but the stories largely fail to nourish our categorical condemnations or push us to try differently on political settlement; to move beyond our well-worn statements, even beyond the welcome support for Palestinian relief, to find just and durable solutions that genuine indignation would insist upon.

And our interns are discouraged (as should we all) that an organization with so much attention focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been able to make only intermittent progress (much of it sadly reversible) within a time-span that is longer than their own lifespans.   Indeed, one of the most moving aspects of this week’s discussions on Palestine were the honest frustrations shared by both ASG Gilmour and the Deputy PR of Palestine, both of whom reflected on what for both has been a “professional lifetime” of engagement on this tragedy. Gilmour lamented the “”unremitting injustices” that have accompanied his entire career inside the UN, injustices that have done much to drive worldwide the “extremism” we presume to reject.  As for the Ambassador, she expressed frustration that she must come to these discussions highlighting the violent oppression that we all recognize “year after year, speech after speech,” without a viable political horizon.

As Iraq noted this week amidst its own protests and repressive responses back in capital, it is important to maintain services for the Palestinians “until a final status solution can be reached.”  And we are grateful for those who donate to UNRWA relief as well as those working to address its recently-highlighted managerial issues. But surely it is at least as important to re-invest in the search for creative political solutions, to confess the many conspirators that covertly impede political progress of a sort that could permit a conflict that serves far too many politicized interests to focus once and for all on the only “interests” that matter – the security and dignity of the parties.

As the UN prepares tomorrow to take up a long-deferred promise on a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone for the Middle East, it will soon become apparent, if it isn’t already, that the “monster” we have co-authored in this region will not easily agree to occupy a seat at this negotiating table. The wounds now are both too deep and too fresh. And in the absence of a viable “immunization program” against hatred and mistrust, we are left only to ourselves and our capacities.  Regardless, it is long past time for states and the rest of us to stop feeding this beast, to bring the motives we so skillfully hide into the diplomatic light, to expose our still-largely “anonymous” fears, and to bring a viable horizon for dignified peacemaking back into view.

Frighteningly enough, the vast misery suffered by Palestinians is not the worst conflict-related humanitarian disaster now facing the world.  But it has clearly been one of the defining tragedies of my generation.  It must not be allowed to define another.

Blame and Its Consequences, Dr. Robert Zuber

27 Oct

Over many years, I have been literally captivated by hundreds of Security Council meetings.   Even as more and more are available via webcast, the chamber itself remains endlessly interesting.   The body language of presenters; the degree to which diplomats are (or are not) actually paying attention to each other; the odd protocols such as inviting diplomats of states on the Council agenda to sit through votes or statements without allowing them to utter a word in support (or protest) of Council decisions; the ‘personalities’ of Council members, from the stoic pragmatism of the Chinese and mandate-fundamentalism of the Russian Federation to the thoughtfulness of current members such as Argentina and Rwanda, and the ‘moral’ stances so often enumerated by the P-3.

No one who sits in these meetings, day after day, can be confused about at least one facet of their underlying purpose.    Though the audience may be meager, these meetings represent opportunities for states to lobby their peers and the court of public opinion.  Given the branding opportunity for states (as in much of the UN as a whole), there are things you almost never hear: regrets over failed actions and/or policies; apologies to those victimized by bad decisions or for not living up to obligations to the International Criminal Court, Troop Contributing Countries, or other sectors of the organization; acknowledgment of valid points raised by political adversaries; and clear and humble explanations of why policies that seemed to some to be so right at the time (ie. Libya bombings, the re-hatting of CAR peacekeepers) have fallen far short of expectations and may have even triggered more of the violence they were designed to prevent.

The point of this post is not to bash the Council which already gets plenty of criticism from many quarters; none of which, so far as I can tell, has much potential to meaningfully divert Council energies or make members take on tasks they are reluctant to accept.

The point is rather that, in some ironic sense, the branding efforts by these powerful Council members also does not seem to have much power to persuade.  People and states that follow Council meetings on a regular basis remain skeptical of motives and strategies as much as convinced.   With all due respect to the multiple challenges on the Council’s agenda, it is apparent that there is precious little ‘maintaining of peace and security’ at present.  Instead, the Council bounces from one crisis to the next, usually too late in the game to maintain much of anything, and certainly to prevent the crises that are both ruining millions of lives and cluttering up its agenda.  I know this is frustrating to at least some of the Council members.  It is frustrating to watch as well.

It seems as though Council members’ often clumsy efforts to garner public support, whether for Russia’s Crimean adventure, the US’s ISIS bombing campaign, or other policy decisions of Council members are falling more and more on deaf ears.   One primary reason for this seems obvious.  What the global public longs to see (and is frankly losing hope in seeing) is Council members displaying less national branding and more introspection; less political posturing and more sober reflection on how we got to the point of so many insurgencies and refugees worldwide; more about the ways in which the UN is still relevant to the resolution of these crises; and much more regarding changes that need to be (and hopefully will be) made to ensure that the Council can live up to its Charter mandate and not simply reaffirm its privilege to cope with security challenges at its own discretion.

One of the ironies of the recent Council discussions on Ukraine and especially on the Middle East was the number of states urging an end to ‘finger pointing’ and then immediately setting out to point fingers.  At no point in these ‘analyses’ of current situations did any state admit to any responsibility for any part of the dangerous tensions on the Council’s agenda.   The crisis in Syria is solely about ISIS and Assad.   The crisis in Gaza is all about the actions of terrorists (with perhaps a bit of Israeli overstretch). The crisis in Ukraine is all about Russians pouring across still—insufficiently monitored borders.  And on it goes.  Localizing the blame more than sharing the responsibility.

Are these causal factors at all relevant?  Of course they are.  Is the list comprehensive?  Of course it isn’t.   Why is this deliberate limitation of causality not, at least once in a while, part of the conversation? It should not be such a rare and remarkable occurrence for a Council member to acknowledge that they, individually and collectively, had misread the policy ‘tea leaves,’ and thus had compromised one or more member states, either through politicized policymaking or through an unwillingness to engage a crisis at an earlier, more manageable stage.

It dismays many onlookers that a Council which jealously guards its prerogatives in the peace and security area is so very reluctant to accept public responsibility for the many situations in which their actions fail to deliver peace.   The unwillingness to publicly acknowledge these shortcomings actually constitutes a disservice to the most responsible Council members, threatens the credibility of the UN system, and insults both analysts and victims who know that things rarely are as they are described in these meetings.

The Council still rightly maintains the respect of UN members and much of the global public.   But this cannot be taken for granted.  The finger pointing and political blaming that seem by default to fill in gaps in what are often well-crafted and even well-meaning policy statements must give way to a more thoughtful engagement with both the origins and consequences of crisis.

We fully acknowledge the immense degrees of difficulty that accompany the pursuit of consensus policy to address a myriad of ugly challenges around the world.   We also understand that many of these challenges – Libya, Mali, Syria, Central African Republic — are barely, if at all, under any effective control at present.  What we need to see from Council members (what we should also require of ourselves in our own policy contexts) is more thoughtfulness about strengths and limitations, less pointing of fingers at others,  more candid admissions of the ways in which Council members (and the rest of us as well) have contributed to the states and structures burning around us.

The great US theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once remarked that ‘the evils against which we contend are the fruits of illusions similar to our own.’  At a moment of agony for millions, illusions are indulgences we just cannot afford.  A more publicly thoughtful Council, a Council defined by pragmatic, cooperative problem solving, a Council willing to “hold the mirror” inwardly as well as outwardly, would do much to maintain public confidence along the now-epic, arduous path towards a sustainable peace.

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

The UN and the Rights of the Palestinians – A need for more balanced, cohesive communication

14 Jun

Editor’s Note:  This is the 2nd Blog Post from Benji Shulman from South Africa.  Benji is spending the summer with GAPW working on the implications for conflict of climate change and environmental degradation.  As someone also involved in Jewish-Islamic relations in his country, Benji will also reflect from time to time (as he does here) on how the UN navigates the complexities of Middle East politics, culture and human rights. 

This blog reports on the 361st meeting of UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. The meeting was attended mostly by Arab states and key members of the Non-Aligned Movement and included a feedback session by committee members and a report back by the office of the Special Rapporteur.

The session focused on reports from various meetings, processes and outcomes of the committee. Updates on the diplomatic front were also given, with a special, positive emphasis placed on the recent Palestinian Unity deal between Hamas and Fatah (See related GA statement — http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs//2014/gapal1300.doc.htm).  Key issues raised over the course of the meeting were the status of the West Bank barrier, prisoners and prisons, conditions in Palestinian areas, the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian participation in other UN committees, and upcoming events commemorating the 2014 UN year of solidarity with the Palestinian People.

The mandate and configuration of the committee was generally favorable to the Palestinian perspective with an absence of Israel-supportive voices in the room. Given this, the outcomes of this committee would likely be considered partisan by onlookers, with more focus and encouragement for current unilateral diplomatic and related efforts being undertaken by the Palestinians than on the encouragement of bilateral negotiations and engagements between the opposing parties.

From a peace and security perspective there are several items worth noting. The first is the progressively milder and more measured language being used by Palestinian diplomatic representatives in this committee. This restraint should be more widely encouraged by the committee. In particular the policy community in Palestine and international Palestinian support groups might not share or even know about the official political stances being taken in their name at the UN, something that would also apply to Israel and its support groups.

The diplomatic corps also need to make sure that their affiliated missions worldwide are conscious and more supportive of the more moderate policy positions being articulated in these UN committees. For example the Palestinian embassy in South Africa, under the late Ambassador Ali Haliemah, was careful to avoid endorsing extremist groups that would undermine the Palestinian state position even if those groups claimed to  be acting on behalf of the Palestinian cause. Since his unfortunate death the Palestinian embassy in South Africa has endorsed events and groups which would be considered at odds with the stated policy positions of the Palestinian representatives at the UN committee and even with those positions the embassy has shared with the South African government.

Going forward clear and consistent communication on policy will be required so that potentially positive diplomatic outcomes do not needlessly confront obstacles from local actors or implicate embassy staff in acts of extremism. This will be especially important in light of the recently announced unity government of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, which as noted was much lauded at the UN meeting. The Palestinian representative dealt only briefly with the issue of conflicting viewpoints between these two parties. The consistent emphasis at the meeting on the goal of a peaceful two- state solution seems considerably at odds with Hamas’s continued aggressive non-recognition of Israel. It remains to be seen which of the two perspectives — or which combination of the two — will become mainstream Palestinian policy.

The other issue that piqued significant interest is the status of Jerusalem on which the committee reported extensively including aspects such as construction, evictions, legal perspectives and religious issues. One point of contention during discussion was the characterization by some of Jerusalem as an “international security issue.” Whilst the area continues to be a hot spot for tensions, it has generally been calmer than other locales including much of the West Bank or indeed many other parts of the Middle East. It is important for discussion to reflect this relative calm given the generally high potential for unrest in the city because of it elevated levels of religious fervor. It has however been demonstrated that these risks have the potential to be mitigated as the recent visit of Pope Francis to the city and the region suggests.

Treating the current status of Jerusalem as a ‘peace and security threat’ seems excessive. One of the risks associated with the unilateral (and sometime inflammatory) actions currently being undertaken by both the Palestinians and Israelis is the continuing threats of violence resulting in part from a lack of negotiations. Currently however violence is not the norm in Jerusalem and it is important to be careful not to create the conditions for a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The potential for dangerous religious tension in the city can in fact be diminished by the international community, by Israel and by the Palestinians, through encouraging inter-faith engagement, clamping down on religious incitement, guaranteeing unimpeded access to all holy sites, and through related confidence-building measures.

Benji Shulman, GAPW

Five Lost Weeks

9 May

Editors Note:   Our hope is to use this space for multiple pieces of commentary motivated by the largely unsuccessful end to both the 2014 Disarmament Commission and the NPT Preparatory Committee. Additional information on both the DC and NPT can be found on the Reaching Critical Will site. 

With applause emanating from most delegates to the NPT Preparatory Committee, five weeks of disarmament commitments from diplomatic missions, Secretariat officials and others was drawn to a close.  The Disarmament Commission. The NPT Review Committee.   Hundreds of government statements.  Many more hours of deliberations.   Millions of dollars in airfare, accommodations, interpreters and more.  The opportunity costs have been staggering, the opportunities themselves largely wasted.

Welcome to spring 2014, a time when some of us anticipated a slight breath of new momentum on disarmament, at least with fingers crossed, but even those modest expectations were effectively suppressed. The Marshall Islands lawsuit in the ICJ was the one glimmer of hope among the many dim flickers of disarmament possibility.

The mood inside the NPT room mirrored some familiar dynamics. On the one hand, diplomatic reverence for the NPT persists, a bit like holding on sentimentally to an automobile that once held promise but is not beginning to show signs of rust.  As Ambassador Roman-Morey wisely noted, we are dealing now with 2014 issues.  The vehicles we employed in 2010 might need a bit of upgrading now.

On the other hand, modifying agreed treaty text within a highly imbalanced and politicized security system allows powerful states to open up pathways to consolidate their own national interests at the expense of others.   And we know that once opened, those pathways are invariably exploited.

The NPT process appears to be caught in a trap of its own making.   A highly political treaty in its own right without independent mechanisms to ensure compliance, the NPT is known by its three pillars as well as its key “essentialist” notions. Foremost among these notions is the NPT’s insistence that the designation of “nuclear weapons states” is not directly tied to the actual possession of such weapons.   This creates needless wastes of energy trying to convince some current nuclear powers to adopt a treaty which, in essence, denies the existence of weapons that everyone knows they have. According to NPT logic, if France were tomorrow to rid themselves of their weapons they would remain a “nuclear weapons state,” while Pakistan, the DPRK, etc. will forever be non-nuclear weapons states regardless of how large their arsenals become. Israel would as well, of course, which makes some modicum of sense, albeit cynical, since they do not acknowledge the existence of weapons that are widely known to exist.  Apparently, there are neither clear points of entry, nor clearly marked exit signs, within the NPT.

The Middle East WMD-Free Zone, a pillar of the 2005 Review Conference, remains a large unfulfilled promise, taking on the character of ‘suggested behavior’ rather than a fundamental, treaty-related commitment.   This is not what was intended in 2005 and is not what is needed now.  After all, we have collectively solved tougher technical and political challenges over the past nine years than getting this conference up and running.

From the outside, the NPT (and its non-outcomes) looks like nothing more than standard UN disarmament politics, disconnected from the public security longings that help inspire state connectivity to the UN in the first place.

In our experience, the good will on the floor of disarmament negotiations is surprisingly sincere, but it also masks deep levels of distrust that play out in multiple policy venues beyond the reach of weapons.  It also hides a diplomatic rotating door that leaves large gaps in institutional memory that new diplomats can only attempt to fill.

Diplomats do their best but then, with few exceptions, they quickly rotate home or to new posts overseas.   For their part, many NGOs parachute in to share their preferences and then go home as well, learning little about how UN headquarters functions including the ways in which their presence is manipulated by states to articulate plausible (but not necessarily successful) outcomes.

Still five weeks of policy attention in a dangerous world should yield more than commitments to revisit commitments.    It is getting harder and harder for those of us who have pretentions to being answerable to global constituents to explain how governments seemingly hold local security needs and aspirations in such little regard.

These constituents can’t experience for themselves the uneven power dynamics and hidden deals that characterize so much of the UN’s disarmament machinery.  They can’t fathom what it takes to create consensus from 194 state positions, all mediated by often extraordinary diplomats who can’t make many more binding policy commitments than the NGOs can.   They can’t grasp why the politics of states, over and over, take blanket precedence over the security needs of communities.

Diplomats will never get this time back again.   The global community, for its part, might never fully regain the confidence that states are truly promoting the community’s best security interests. We’ll have to wait until 2015, it seems, for a full cost accounting of the trust deficits that have only widened during these five long weeks.

Dr. Robert Zuber

The Iran Nuclear Deal – “A new beginning for the people in the Middle East”

17 Dec

A master-class in balanced analysis was elegantly presented by Trita Parsi, founder and current president of the National Iranian American Council, at a recent UN meeting in the Economic and Social Council Chamber (ECOSOC) organized by the Women’s International Forum. The topic at hand was, “The Iran nuclear deal – how we got here and what it means.” This subject matter could have very well attracted controversy and heated exchange on both sides of the fence, if not handled with care, wisdom, expertise and a mindset that is willing to acknowledge the multiple facets that assemble a somewhat objective reality. Parsi managed to integrate all of these aspects, not by simply explaining the status quo but by highlighting the tremendous impact that the recent nuclear deal with Iran could well have for the entire region and as a result, the international community.

“Diplomacy is making some significant headway,” Parsi explained introductorily, referencing the nuclear deal set up between six major powers of the international community and Iran, but without neglecting the fact that the current compromise is no more than an “interim agreement” — albeit of historic proportion.

It is meant to put on-hold key elements of Iran’s nuclear enrichment in exchange for temporary easing on some of the economic sanctions that had been imposed by the U.S., the Security Council and others. The installation of new centrifuges for uranium enrichment that Iran had acquired has been stopped, and the measures in place make it virtually impossible for Tehran to build a nuclear weapon without being detected. In return, Iran will receive partial relief in regard to trade sanctions and renewed access to a number of its frozen currency accounts overseas. In case Iran violates the agreement’s terms, the sanctions can be re-employed at any point in time.

“This agreement, although yet to be implemented, is not only referring to Iran’s nuclear aspirations, but has an impact on the entire region and the very direction Iran is taking as a country.”

Parsi named a number of “decisive factors” that smoothed the way for the most current political breakthrough. “The Iranians recently elected Hassan Rouhani for president, the most moderate person among the candidates. With him, a centrist cabinet came into power that had made numerous proposals to the West before, which had unfortunately failed in the past.” Rouhani visited the United Nations in late September to the U.N.’s first ever High Level Meeting of the General Assembly on Nuclear Disarmament.

The HLM showcased the Iranian head of state as an authority on ridding the world of nuclear weapons, rather than acquiring them. Rouhani did not only get invited to present on this politically charged topic, but among the eight plenary speakers addressing the global leaders, he received the number three slot in the lineup.

Furthermore, Parsi explained how the Iranians had been cooperating more closely with the U.S. in 2001, only to then be added to the “axis of evil” by former President George W. Bush as a response to the terror attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. on 9/11. This led to hardened political statements in tones that were often infused with hostility. “In the eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, Iran and the West went in different directions, which could have escalated into a military confrontation.” With the election of Rouhani, “there was suddenly someone in power worth investing in by the White House.” Parsi was referring here in part to U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, “defending the nuclear deal to a very skeptical Congress only yesterday. There is now confidence that Iran delivers.”

Parsi stated that the pressure the U.S. administration experienced regarding an optional military intervention in Syria on behalf of the American public, “pushed Obama into deep diplomacy,” when he was confronted with the subsequent Iran negotiations. As a result, noted Parsi, Iran which had recently been considered “the most difficult issue within the region” became “low hanging fruit in comparison to the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict or the dangerous situation still in Syria.” Parsi repeated that the second step, the actual implementation of the landmark accord, will be the real difficulty the six negotiating world powers are facing. Earlier this week, expert level talks began in Vienna to work out specific details of implementation. Officials from Iran, The United States, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia met at the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the agency that will play a central role in verifying that Tehran carries out its part of the deal.

The interim agreement will also, in Parsi’s view, have tremendous implications for Iran within the region, specifically in improving relations with neighboring states. The agreement “implies de-containment, both politically and economically.” For some time, Iran has not had a recognized role within the region and the country has been excluded from meaningful participation in many international bodies. Parsi explained that the negotiation process would bring an image change for Iran, certainly a different approach to their policy on Israel, as well as positive, long-term repercussions for many Arabic states. “Nobody is going to lose out in the long run. Iran is not going to have a nuclear bomb, and it doesn’t lie in the interest of Israel or Saudi Arabia to continue a perpetual conflict with Iran.”

Parsi concluded, “Ultimately, this is about so much more than enrichment or centrifuges. If this agreement can be implemented, it will determine who will define Iran for the next decades. This can be a new beginning for the countries and the people of the Middle East.”

Parsi provided valuable lessons in contemporary diplomacy, and reminded the UN audience why the threat of war can no longer be accepted as the “continuation of policy by other means” in the 21st century.

 

Lia Petridis Maiello

 

This piece was originally published with The Huffington Post.

Fueling the Syrian Conflict From All Sides

29 May

As the conflict in Syria rages on, ostensibly slipping further and further into an increasingly grievous civil war, the European Union decided on 28 May 2013 to lift an arms embargo thereby allowing for the option to provide arms to the Syrian rebels fighting against President Bashar Al-Assad and his government. The decision to lift the embargo was supported mainly by the UK and France. Catherine Ashton, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, remarked that the non-renewal of the arms embargo comes with certain conditions—weapons can only be sent to the so-called moderate Syrian National Coalition and the affiliated Free Syria Army and can only be used to “protect civilians.” While the embargo sets the stage for weapons transfers to the Syrian rebels, there is no immediate plan to begin authorizations of weapons as the earliest possible time for such transfers would be August 2013 (after a conference is to be held in Geneva next month to negotiate a peace agreement). Nevertheless, this policy change is indeed a worrisome development in the context of a bloody, prolonged, and seemingly intractable civil conflict in a region of unsettling politics and violence. Several countries have rightly argued that more weapons will inevitably mean more death and destruction no matter to which parties to the conflict they are intended.

Particularly in light of the recent adoption of an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) in the UN General Assembly (set to be open for signature next week on 3 June 2013), the dangers of transferring conventional arms to governments (or, in this case, entities) with the potential to violate international humanitarian law, international human rights law, undermine peace and security, or be used to commit acts of gender-based violence or violence against children are highly relevant to the debate over supplying arms to “stabilize” a conflict versus “exacerbating” the violence. The original intent and impetus of an ATT—preventing the human suffering associated with the unregulated and illicit arms trade—are interestingly on display in the Syria case. The human suffering apparent in the Syrian context is indisputable. The UN estimates that nearly 80,000 individuals have died in addition to the dire refugee and displacement crises and the overall disruption of livelihoods. Such violence has been committed with imported (legally and illicitly) weapons of all kinds as arms flow into and within the region. Moreover, the dangers of “legitimate” arms falling into the hands of “non-legitimate” entities are even more severe in the context of Syria given the lack of information on the rebel groups and the instability of the region writ large. The determination of which groups are the “legitimate” representatives of the Syrian people is hardly clear.

Applying the ATT to the Syrian case is not straightforward, but an interesting case study nonetheless. Export assessment criteria represent the linchpin of the ATT operability insofar as these criteria must be examined prior to any arms authorization by the exporting states party. The agreed criteria in the ATT do provide an interesting backdrop to the discussion of whether or not such export authorizations are in line with international legal obligations. Of course, a major difference (and ultimately a major complication and what would seem a “loophole” in the Syria case) that must be noted is that the ATT covers inter-governmental transfers and does not explicitly elaborate on criteria related to transfers to non-state actors. A prohibition against transfers to non-state actors was a hotly debated issue during the ATT negotiations and, ultimately, was not included in the final text. Many of the loudest objectors to the text, including many Arab states and the three states that formally objected to the text at the conclusion of the March 2013 negotiations (the DPRK, Iran, and Syria), noted the absence of this prohibition as a major oversight in the drafting. They noted that although the majority of states called for this prohibition, it was purposefully left out. Therefore, the ATT, even if it had already entered into force and the relevant parties were state parties, would not apply in this case. If instruments such as the ATT are to have a real impact, then treaty criteria must be incorporated into all export decisions and not just those which are explicitly referenced. Otherwise, a policy of criteria avoidance could be easily adopted and implemented.

In the same week that the EU lifted the embargo, the Russian government announced that it would move ahead with the transfer of anti-aircraft missiles to the sitting Syrian government as a “stabilizing factor” that would “deter” foreign intervention into the conflict. It is clear that arming either side—the Assad regime or the rebel groups—is doing little to bring the violence to an end or address the dire humanitarian crisis. The Syrian conflict has ultimately moved from a rebellion to a civil war to a regional war by proxy with external forces such as Iran and Russia eager to counterbalance moves by the EU and the US.

The insertion of more weaponry on either side has little hope for changing the political or practical dynamics of the conflict and, thus, instigating hopes for bringing forth a negotiated peace. As Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted to the Human Rights Council in Geneva recently, “The message from all of us should be the same: we will not support this conflict with arms, ammunition, politics or religion.”

 

–Katherine Prizeman