Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May/June 2006, pages 34-35

United Nations Report

Concern for U.N. “Reform” Often Stops Short of Enforcing Resolutions

By Ian Williams

An aerial view of Morocco’s 1,200-mile long “separation wall” in the Western Sahara, built in 1982 in an attempt to put an end to raids by the indigenous Polisario Front resistance group (AFP Photo/Patrick Hertzog).

ONE is never sure whether to be disgusted or amused when congressmen in Washington piously invoke their concern for the United Nations and its alleged need for reform as the reason for their attempts to starve it of funds.

It is clear that many of them—Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) and Sen. Norman Coleman (R-MN) spring to mind—want to reform it to death. There is no doubt that the 60-year-old institution could benefit from some serious reforms—but one of the major ones would be an exclusion of the influence of individual member states other than when expressed in collective decisions by bodies like the General Assembly and the Security Council. In particular—although one would never guess it from Congress—Washington interferes far too often and far too successfully in the running of the organization.

For many in Congress, the major reform issue is the cleaning up of allegedly outdated mandates—which, for them, means most importantly the extinction of all programs and events related to the Palestinians. We share their concern, of course—because all of these programs would immediately be rendered moot if the U.N. were doing its job properly, and all the relevant resolutions implemented efficiently.

For example, speedy and efficient implementation of U.N. Resolutions 242, 338 and others on Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories would indeed end the intifada at a stroke, and pave the way for the end of all those outmoded mandates.

UNRWA, the U.N. agency dealing with the Palestinian refugees for almost 60 years, would indeed be redundant if the refugees were allowed to go home or receive compensation, but one suspects that this is not what Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen intends when she wants to close the organization down. Indeed, even as she courts the campaign checks of rabidly anti-U.N. Likudniks in the U.S., it was revealed that the actual Israeli government—as part of its campaign to bypass the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority—was pressing UNRWA to expand its scope and provide services for non-refugee Palestinians.

Of course, the U.S. is not alone. There are many member states whose concern for the U.N.’s efficiency is strictly limited and expedient. The issue of the “Other Separation Wall” in Western Sahara has been studiously by-passed by both the U.S. and France, as well as other countries on the Security Council. Morocco has publicly refused to allow the act of self-determination for the people of Western Sahara that the International Court of Justice mandated over three decades ago, and has refused to withdraw as ordered by the Security Council.

Rabat has consistently and openly frustrated every effort of MINURSO, the U.N. Mission in the territory, to allow the organizing of a referendum on the territory’s future. So far it has not even had a public reprimand from Washington, even though King Mohamed’s public and adamant refusal to accept U.N. resolutions means the peace-keeping mission has swallowed hundreds of million dollars of U.N.—and thus also U.S. taxpayers’—cash. In between their fulminations about U.N. waste and mismanagement, one rarely hears Congress address this simple economy measure: tell the king to abide by U.N. decisions.

Iran Statement Machinations

In contrast, the U.S. wants Iran to bow to U.N. decisions that have not even been made. It took weeks of hard bargaining to get a Presidential Statement from the Security Council that asked Tehran to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency on its nuclear enrichment program.

The Presidential Statement (the president in question being the monthly rotating head of the Security Council) came into its own during the Balkan Wars as part of a sort of anti-arsenal of U.N. decisions. Instead of actual Security Council resolutions—particularly those invoking Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which are legally binding but were widely ignored by Slobodan Milosevic and reinterpreted into non-enforcement by the U.N. peacekeeping contingents, particularly the British and the French—the West came up with the Presidential Statement. This has no legal force whatsoever, but was supposed to send a signal to malefactor member-states. Of course it did indeed send a signal—of complete impunity. If actual resolutions were not going to be implemented, then why should Belgrade fear a Presidential Statement?

However, the statement on Iran was different. There are U.N. decisions that Washington does not want implemented, and there are U.N. non-decisions that it does. Just as with the run up to the war on Iraq, the wrestling over the text of the Iranian resolution represents the Bush administration’s clear intention to do something foolish.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was ambassador to the U.N. during the build up to the Iraq war, noticed what he called a sense of “déjà vu” about the pressure, and Russia’s current ambassador reportedly expostulated that at this rate Iran would be getting bombed by June. Despite heavy American pressure—in fact, possibly because of it—members of the Security Council dug in their heels and removed wording from the original draft which suggested that Iran’s behavior was a “threat to peace and security.” They also pushed back the deadline for a report from the IAEA, from U.S. Ambassador John Bolton’s preferred two weeks to 30 days.

The process was suitably Byzantine. The British and French originally had drawn up a diplomatically worded draft, presumably on the assumption that anything drawn up by Bolton would be so undiplomatic as to totally unite all other members around it. After checking it out with Washington, the draft was then taken to China and Russia—who, over two weeks of negotiation, diluted it considerably—before it was revealed to those lesser Security Council members lacking a veto.

Beijing and Moscow’s dilemma was that, if they did not agree to an anodyne and legally toothless statement, which needs unanimity to be accepted, the U.S., Britain and France could make it a resolution, which could be much tougher and pass with nine votes—unless the Russians or the Chinese were to veto it. Legally, of course, they have every right to do so, and could cite innumerable recent precedents of U.S. vetoes to protect Israel.

However, in neither Moscow nor Beijing is there an Iranian lobby to match AIPAC in Washington, and neither Russia nor China was eager to risk American displeasure at their temerity on behalf of what even they think is a fairly flaky partner in Tehran. In addition, there is the implied fact that a Russian veto is not as equal as an American veto. In the real world the U.S. can stop other countries from doing things, whereas a Russian or Chinese veto risked being what Tony Blair in the run up to Iraq called “an unreasonable veto.” The U.S. probably was going to go ahead with military action against Iran no matter what the Russians and Chinese say, and such blatant disregard of legal niceties would devalue Russia’s pretensions to great power status—which, like that of France and Britain, is now largely based on historical rather than present capabilities.

Conversely, the danger of acceding to a Presidential Statement, even an attenuated one, is that, as over Iraq, Moscow and Beijing have allowed themselves to be nudged along the road to military action by the U.S. when Washington declares that Tehran is in violation of U.N. “decisions” and that the Pentagon will accept the burden of ensuring compliance.

Human Rights Council Maneuverings

Iran and the U.S. were, however, united on one issue: neither was happy with the new Human Rights Council. The prospect of actually voting no along with the U.S., Israel, Palau and the Marshall Islands was too much for Tehran, however, which contented itself with being one of three abstentions.

Iran has shown interest in becoming a member of the 47-strong new body, despite being one of the countries that had often hampered the work of the former Human Rights Commission by teaming up with other human rights violators to fend off scrutiny. However, based on previous U.N. voting records, Tehran could well be defeated in the General Assembly vote for the new body.

The U.S. has similar fears. Ironically, one of the points of hostility against the new body made by Ambassador Bolton was the defeat of Kofi Annan’s original proposal that membership should require a two-thirds vote. At the beginning of April the U.S. State Department declared that it was prepared to work with the new Council, but would not be standing as a candidate this year. Presumably that is because the State Department realized that, in a secret ballot, many countries would take vicarious delight in paying back both Ambassador Bolton and Washington for what they consider to be bullying. The instructions to members reminded them that they should take “into account the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights.”

While “Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and the PATRIOT Act,” was hardly the slogan for a successful election campaign, many human rights activists had hoped that the General Assembly delegates would forgo the pleasures of point scoring and realize the truth of LBJ’s dictum, that it would be better to have Bolton inside the tent urinating outward rather than outside wetting the interior.

Several years ago, the U.S. had indeed lost a seat on the former commission, regaining it only after strong pressure on New Zealand, which had won, to stand down to make way. It may be that the State Department hopes to adopt a similar strategy next year, when the field will be smaller and it can concentrate its pressure while avoiding the humiliation of a defeat which would actually reinforce the position of Bolton’s anti-U.N. brigade. The only way Washington can ensure victory, however—apart from being nice—is to limit the number of candidates. This, of course, is precisely the opposite of what the new Council is supposed to be about: open competition based on human rights records.

Ian Williams is a free-lance journalist based at the United Nations.

Additional information