Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador, sought to make peace today with her most famous congressional detractor, Senator John McCain (R-Ar), who recently promised to do all in his power to "block" Rice from being confirmed by the Senate as President Barack Obama's next secretary of state. McCain has excoriated Rice for charactering the September 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, which led to the murder of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other American nationals, as likely being motivated as a spontaneous response to the broadcast of an anti-Muslim video.
In response to a reporter's question, Rice said "I have
great respect for Senator McCain and his service to our country. I always have,
and I always will. I do think that some of the statements he's made about me
have been unfounded, but I look forward to having the opportunity at the
appropriate time to discuss all of this with him." Rice also defended her
account of what happened in Benghazi, saying: "I relied solely and squarely on
the information provided to me by the intelligence community. I made clear that
the information was preliminary and that our investigations would give us the
Let's forget for a moment, as David Wiegel noted in Slate, that McCain and other Rice critics, including Lindsey Graham (R-SC), may not have the 40 votes required to filibuster Rice's nomination. But Rice appeared eager to smooth over a prickly relationship with a high profile politician who, while perhaps incapable of blocking her nomination, has the ability to produce headlines. As Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank recalled, Rice has history with McCain. In the 2008 election campaign, Rice, then serving as Obama's foreign policy advisor, portrayed McCain's policies in Iraq as "reckless" and ridiculed the former prisoner of war for "strolling around the market in a flak jacket" during a visit to Iraq.
Here's an excerpt from Rice's latest remarks at the United Nations today on the Benghazi controversy.
Reporter: Thank you very much. Ambassador Rice, would you explain your view of the controversy concerning your comments about Benghazi? And have-is Senator McCain fair in what he has said?
Ambassador Rice: Well, Pam, let me begin with the obvious. As a senior U.S. diplomat, I agreed to a White House request to appear on the Sunday shows to talk about the full range of national security issues of the day, which at that time were primarily and particularly the protests that were enveloping and threatening many diplomatic facilities-American diplomatic facilities-around the world and Iran's nuclear program. The attack on Benghazi-on our facilities in Benghazi-was obviously a significant piece of this.
When discussing the attacks against our facilities in Benghazi, I relied solely and squarely on the information provided to me by the intelligence community. I made clear that the information was preliminary and that our investigations would give us the definitive answers. Everyone, particularly the intelligence community, has worked in good faith to provide the best assessment based on the information available. You know the FBI and the State Department's Accountability Review Board are conducting investigations as we speak, and they will look into all aspects of this heinous terrorist attack to provide what will become the definitive accounting of what occurred.
Let me just end by saying, I knew Chris Stevens. I worked closely with him and had the privilege of doing so as we tried together as a government to free the Libyan people from the tyranny of Qadhafi. He was a valued colleague, and his loss and that of his three colleagues is a massive tragedy for all of us who serve in the US government and for all the American people. None of us will rest, none of us will be satisfied until we have the answers and the terrorists responsible for this attack are brought to justice.
And, Pam, let me just say-you asked about Senator McCain. Let me be very clear. I have great respect for Senator McCain and his service to our country. I always have, and I always will. I do think that some of the statements he's made about me have been unfounded, but I look forward to having the opportunity at the appropriate time to discuss all of this with him.
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Mutineers effortlessly seized control of the eastern Congolese capital of Goma, laying claim to the region's political and commercial capital, and embarrassing Congolese armed forces and U.N. peacekeepers that did little to stall their advance.
In New York, France and the United States this evening reached agreement on a draft resolution that condemns the M23 mutineers' capture of Goma, and demands their immediate withdrawal from the city. The resolution -- which is expected to be voted on tonight -- will impose additional sanctions on M23's commanders and ask U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to report on "external support" for the rebel group.
The French-American pact followed days of difficult negotiations over the appropriate response to the crisis, and whether to blame the mutineers alleged backers -- Rwanda and Uganda. France, a longtime ally of Congo, favored directly naming the regional powers. But the United States, which has close ties to Rwanda, opposes such action.
An independent U.N. panel has accused Rwanda, and to a lesser extent Uganda, of organizing, arming, training, and financing the mutiny in eastern Congo.
In recent days, the mutineers -- who allegedly take their orders from Rwandan Defense Minister James Kaberebe -- have received supplies of advance military equipment, including night vision goggles and mortars.
The panel, which was established by the U.N. Security Council to monitor compliance with the country's arms embargo, has accused the M23 of committed widespread human rights abuses, including murder, rape, and the forced recruitment of children.
Rwanda and Uganda have denied playing any role in backing the mutineers.
France, which has the lead on Security Council action in the Congo, has privately expressed an interest in sanctioning Rwanda, or at least citing their alleged role in aiding the insurgency. But they have faced resistance from the United States, according to Security Council diplomats.
The French mission said today in a tweet that the "proposed text requests" that Ban "report on external support to M23 in the coming days [and] expresses readiness to take action." The United States, however, raised concern about that provision, according to council diplomats.
The U.S. mission to the United Nations declined to discuss the content of its closed-door discussions. But a U.S. official said: "Our concern about the situation in Eastern Congo and the M23's appalling military campaign is clear, and our objective is to end the rebellion. Any action by the Security Council should be measured against whether it supports the ongoing diplomatic efforts toward that goal."
The debate in the council unfolded as M23 marched largely unopposed into the eastern Congolese city of Goma.
The U.N. deputy spokesman, Eduardo del Buey, cited reports that the M23 mutineers have "wounded civilians, continued abductions of women and children, looted property and intimidated journalists and those who have attempted to resist their controls."
Del Buey said that as of midday the U.N. still had control over the city's airport and that 17 U.N. rapid reaction forces were carrying out patrols in Goma and would "continue all efforts within their capacity to protect civilians from imminent threat."
France's foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, sharply criticized the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, known as MONUSCO, saying it was "absurd" that a force that numbers 17,000 peacekeepers, (although far fewer are deployed in the area of fighting), was unable to repel the advance of several hundred insurgents into Goma. "MONUSCO is 17,000 soldiers, but sadly it was not in a position to prevent what happened," Fabius said.
Britain, meanwhile, urged its nationals not to travel to the conflict zone.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, meanwhile, said that his government's minister for Africa, Mark Simmonds, was headed to the region to assess developments.
"The M23 must withdraw their forces immediately and allow legitimate government control to be restored," Hague said. "I urge once more those with influence over the M23 to encourage them to stop fighting and to withdraw immediately."
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The U.N. today released a damning 128-page internal review of its conduct in Sri Lanka during the bloody, final several months of the country's 28 year-long civil war. The main takeaway -- as I reported yesterday -- is that the U.N. failed abjectly in its responsibility to protect the more than 40,000 civilians killed, mostly as a result of indiscriminate government shelling.
But the published report includes a series of redacted passages describing a key, high-level meeting in March 2009 with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in which several of Ban's top advisors argued against publishing the U.N. death toll, characterizing Sri Lankan atrocities at war crimes, or pressing for an international investigation into possible abuses by combatants.
The redacted content came to light because the document released by the U.N. secretariat contained an embedded reference to the blacked-out passage. Simply cutting and pasting the redacted sections from the original PDF on a Microsoft Word document revealed the portions that had been scrubbed from the report.
During that 2009 meeting, Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, had proposed that the U.N. publish a casualty estimates toll -- which, at the time, amounted to more than 2,800 dead and 7,500 injured -- from an internal U.N. assessment, and to warn the Sri Lankan government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that they could face war crimes charges.
But her request was fiercely resisted.
Several top U.N. advisors, including the U.N.'s top man in Sri Lanka, Neil Buhne, and the U.N.'s emergency relief coordinator, John Holmes, "did not stand by the casualty numbers, saying that the data were ‘not verified,'" noted a redacted part of the report.
"Several participants questioned whether it was the right time for such a statement, [and] asked to see the draft before release and suggested it be reviewed by OLA (The Office of Legal Affairs)," according to the report.
But Pillay dismissed the concerns, and proceeded to prepare a statement warning the Sri Lankan military and the LTTE that their actions "may constitute international crimes, entailing individual responsibility, including for war crimes and crimes against humanity."
"Credible sources have indicated that more than 2,800 civilians have been killed and 7,500 injured since 20 January, many of them inside the no-fire zone," the statement read. "There are legitimate fears that the loss of life may reach catastrophic levels if the fighting continues in this way.... More civilians have been killed in Sri Lanka in the past seven weeks than in Afghanistan during the whole of last year."
Ban's chief of staff, Vijay Nambiar, appealed to Pillay at the time to reconsider.
"I perceive that the severity of the draft statement you propose to make is likely to have very serious political and legal repercussions for the rest of us and I hope you can consider carefully this fact while finalizing your statement," Nambiar wrote in an email to Pillay, according to an un-redacted portion of the report. Reminding her that Buhne and Holmes had "underlined the fact that the accuracy of the figures remains still quite questionable.... By getting on the record with these figures I feel we are getting into difficult terrain."
Holmes, meanwhile, made a similar case for holding back the number, citing the "difficulty of being able to defend them with confidence" and the "risk of a counterproductive reaction from the Sri Lankan government is high."
"The reference to possible war crimes will be controversial," he added. "I am not sure going into this dimension is helpful."
Members of the policy planning committee also expressed concerns that a proposal by U.N. Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide Frances Deng to travel to Sri Lanka "may add to overcrowding of U.N. actors" dealing with the crisis. They said that a proposal to appoint a special envoy for Sri Lanka to raise the profile of the conflict was a good idea but that it "did not seem politically feasible" given government opposition.
In the months following the war, according to the public section of the report, the U.N. brass was increasingly focused on exploring how perpetrators of rights abuses might be held accountable. But the U.N. redacted passages showing that there was "considerable disagreement" among senior U.N. officials on how to achieve that.
"Discussing whether or not the Secretary General should establish an international Commission of Experts, many participants [at a July 30 Policy Planning Committee meeting] were reticent to do so without the support of the [Sri Lankan] government and at a time when Member States were also not supportive. At the same, participants also acknowledged that a government mechanism was unlikely to seriously address past violations. The Secretary General said that ‘the government should be given the political space to develop a domestic mechanism' and that only if this did not occur within a limited time frame would the UN look at alternatives."
Nearly 2 and a half years later, and despite Sri Lanka's commitment to a credible investigation into war-time abuses, the U.N. has yet to issue a firm public call for an independent inquiry into the war.
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Ban Ki-moon added his voice today to the rising chorus of world leaders denouncing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's brutal repression of civilians and his failure to listen to his people's demands for democratic change.
"I am gravely concerned about Syria," Ban said in speech this afternoon at Yale University. "Each day in Syria brings new reports of appalling violations of human rights and tragic suffering."
Throughout the Arab Spring, Ban's outspoken criticism of Syria and other long-ruling Arab despots has helped to recast the former South Korean foreign minister -- who had been criticized by human rights advocates during his first term as being too soft on despots -- as a champion of human rights and democracy.
But it is his response to the final, bloody months of Sri Lanka's decades-long civil war -- a human rights calamity that has largely fallen below the radar of most global policymakers -- that may ultimately do more to shape his legacy, and that of the United Nations, as a defender of human rights.
An internal U.N. probe into the U.N.'s response to the crisis in Sri Lanka concluded that the United Nations had failed to fulfill its obligations to protect civilians in Sri Lanka, where as many as 40,000 civilians were killed in the final five months of the conflict that ended in May 2009, according to a draft summary that was leaked to the BBC.
"Events in Sri Lanka mark a grave failure of the UN," the report concluded.
Sri Lanka's 26-year-long civil war pitted the country's ruling Sinhalese majority against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a ruthless insurgency that assassinated an Indian prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, and introduced the practice of suicide bombings.
The Sri Lankan government launched an all-out offensive in late 2008 in an effort to crush the LTTE. The operation, which centered on a Tamil stronghold in the northern Vanni region of Sri Lanka, succeeded in wiping out the armed movement in May 2009. But the operation took a devastating toll on ethnic Tamil civilians, who were largely trapped between the rival forces. Most of the victims died of indiscriminate shelling by Sri Lankan military forces.
A U.N. panel, set up by Ban, concluded in April 2011 that both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE committed massive human rights violations.
The panel recommended that Ban set up an "independent international mechanism" to carry out a more thorough probe into "credible" allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, which held more than 300,000 civilians "hostage" to enforce a "strategic human buffer between themselves and the advancing Sri Lankan army."
But the panel also faulted the United Nations for failing "to take actions that might have protected civilians" and called on Ban to conduct a "comprehensive review" of the U.N. system's response to the crisis.
The U.N. chief has never authorized an independent investigation, arguing that only an intergovernmental organization like the U.N. Security Council or the Human Rights Council has the power to do it. (That hasn't happened).
But Ban did set up the panel to review the U.N.'s conduct in Sri Lanka.
Ban's spokesman, Martin Nesirky, said that the U.N. chief would meet with the panel's chief author, Charles Petrie, on Wednesday morning and would release the report soon after.
But he declined to comment on the contents of the leaked report in a press briefing today. "We don't comment on leaked documents," he said. "The secretary general will be receiving the report of the Internal Review Panel this week. When he does receive it and has read it, it will be made public."
The Petrie report points to a "systemic failure" in the U.N. response to the crisis, and criticized the organization for withdrawing personnel from the conflict zone in September 2008, on the grounds that the Sri Lankan government could no longer guarantee their safety, according to the BBC, which published quotes from the confidential report.
The report also faults "many senior UN staff" who "did not perceive the prevention of killing of civilians as their responsibility -- and agency and department heads at UNHQ were not instructing them otherwise." There was, according to the report, "a sustained and institutional reluctance [by U.N. personnel in Sri Lanka] to stand up for the rights of people they were mandated to assist."
Steven R. Ratner, a professor at University of Michigan’s Law school who served on Ban’s first panel, said the reports of the latest findings are consistent with his teams’ own investigations.
But he said the more serious failure is that the Sri Lankan’s have never conducted a credible investigation into the crimes.
“The U.N. failed, but the Sri Lankan government is ultimately most responsible," Ratner told Turtle Bay. "They are the ones who have not begun a bona fide accountability process.”
Ratner said that the conduct of the Sri Lankan government, and the failure of the outside world to prevent atrocities, has given a “black eye” to the newly emerging Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, which was adopted at the United Nations by world leaders in 2005.
“You had a crisis that unfolded before the eyes of the United Nations and the major powers and no action was taken,” he said. “Everything was done in a very quiet way. I think it’s a terrible defeat and setback for the whole commitment to R2P.”
It remains unclear what action, if any, the U.N. will take in response to the report. It will never be possible to assess Ban's record on human rights without taking a hard look at what the U.N. did, or more importantly, didn't do in Sri Lanka.
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The election of the United States to the U.N. Human Rights Council by the General Assembly this morning drew sighs of relief from human rights advocates who feared that a U.S. defeat would undercut American support for the U.N.'s principal rights body.
The United States garnered the highest number of votes in a five-way race for three seats reserved for Western governments, besting Germany and Ireland, who also secured seats on the council, and leaving Greece and Sweden in defeat.
The vote represented a victory for Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Eileen Donahoe, the U.S. ambassador to the Human Rights Council, who ran the risk of possible defeat in an effort to promote open elections at the United Nations.
Rice said the United States is "proud" to have been elected in a "very spirited campaign" to a second three-year term.
But did the U.S. really win on its merits?
Does the United States -- with its death penalty, its controversial detention and shoot-to-kill drone policies -- really have a better human rights record than Sweden?
"No," tweeted Jamil Dakwar, director of the ACLU's Human Rights Program. But the United States, he added, "has more political power to secure" U.N. General Assembly votes denouncing rights abuses. Dakwar said that the United States falls short of its European competitors for the seat, due to its excesses in the war on terrorism, discriminatory criminal justice system, and immigration policy. And yet, said Dakwar, "On balance, the United States deserves to be on the Human Rights Council because of its overall record on human rights issues over the years and its commitment to strengthening human rights."
Dakwar's remarks reflect a widely held view among human rights proponents, and European governments, that despite the Obama administration's failings, Washington's leadership remains vital to promoting broad human rights protections at the United Nations. It's probably better to have Washington than Sweden on your side when you're facing off with an emboldened new generation of Islamic leaders who are committed to adopting resolutions outlawing criticism of religions.
"It is not just about one's human rights record it's also about their ability to make an effective contribution to advancing the Human Rights Council," said Peggy Hicks, an expert at Human Rights Watch. "In that sense, the U.S. carries far more political weight."
Suzanne Nossel, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said that America's election provides Washington with an opportunity not only to promote human rights values abroad, but to live up to them at home. "The most important contribution the United Nations can now make to the cause of human rights is a determined effort to regain its own credibility," Nossel said. "The continued indefinite detention without criminal charges of 166 men at the Guantanamo Bay naval base, the ongoing military commission proceedings that fail to meet fair trial standards, a drone program shrouded in secrecy, and the lack of accountability for torture and disappearances in the so-called ‘war on terror' undermine human rights and undercut the legitimacy of the U.S.'s voice at the council."
The U.N. 47-nation Human Rights Council was established in 2006. But the George W. Bush administration refused to join it, saying membership would lend legitimacy to a body that included many governments with appalling rights records. Obama reversed course, arguing that it would be better to improve the body from within than lecturing from the outside.
In recent years, the Obama administration has used its influence to prevent countries with poor rights records from joining the body, running campaigns to block countries like Belarus, Iran, and Syria from getting on the council. But today's vote -- which also resulted in election victories for Venezuela and Pakistan -- shows that it remains a struggle to ensure that members of the council are actually committed to promoting human rights. Critics of the Geneva-based council argued that the fact that countries like Pakistan and Venezuela won a greater number of votes than the United States highlights the council's moral bankruptcy.
The real culprit in this unfolding spectacle is the U.N. system of regional voting blocs, which generally pre-select a list of candidates based on which country is next in line. The practice ensures that everyone gets their chance -- whether they deserve it or not -- and there are no messy elections.
It is hard to offer a precise measurement of a country's human rights record because the major human rights advocatcy groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, don't rank nations by their record. The Freedom House Freedom Index, though, includes all five Western candidates in the ranks of the "free." Reporters Without Borders's Press Freedom Index ranks Sweden higher, at 12, than any of the 18 countries voted on the Human Rights Council, including the United States, which ranked 47.
But Sweden is by no means perfect, according to rights advocates.
Amnesty International has criticized Sweden for detaining and surrendering two Egyptian asylum seekers, Ahmed Agiza and Mohammed al-Zari, via a CIA-leased plane to Egypt, where they allegedly were subject to torture. And Sweden also failed to meet international standards in considering asylum applications from Roma that fled Serbia.
But the Swedish candidacy had two liabilities.
For one, according to rights advocates, it had taken a tougher stance -- alongside the United States -- against the traditional practice of trading votes on other elections in order to win. And a loss for Sweden posed no threat to the U.N. rights institution itself. "There was a concern that if the United States was defeated it would give fodder to those who are skeptical about U.S. engagement at the council in the first place," said Peggy Hicks.
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Uganda has threatened to withdraw from U.S.- and U.N.-backed regional efforts to hunt down Joseph Kony, the notorious leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, and to restore peace in Somalia, if the world body fails to clear it of charges of supporting an armed mutiny in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The threat, which was contained in a Ugandan letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and to 15 members of the U.N. Security Council, follows last month's leak of a report by an independent U.N. Group of Experts alleging that Rwanda and Uganda are sponsoring a military mutiny in eastern Congo.
President Yoweri Museveni's special envoy, Ruhakana Rugunda, Lt. General Katumba Wamala, the commander of Ugandan land forces, and other senior officials, traveled to New York last week to underscore Kampala's anger over the panel's findings. In his meeting with U.N. officials and diplomats, Rugunda expressed "disappointment and grave concern about the false accusations against Uganda" contained in the Group of Experts report, according to a Ugandan statement.
"The government expressed that it was unacceptable to malign Uganda's contribution to regional peace and security by alleging that it supports the M23 Group," read the statement. "The government informed that Uganda's withdrawal from regional peace, including Somalia, CAR, etc. would become inevitable unless the UN corrects the false accusations made against Uganda."
The Security Council panel, known as the Group of Experts, alleged that "senior government of Uganda (GOU) officials have ... provided support to M23 in the form of direct troops reinforcements in DRC territory, munitions deliveries, technical assistance, joint planning, political advise, and facilitation of external relations," according to the confidential report, which was reviewed by Turtle Bay.
"Units of the Ugandan People's Defense Forces (UPDF) and the Rwandan Defence Forces (RDF) jointly supported M23 in a series of attacks on July 12 to take over the major towns of Rutushuru territory" as well as a Rwandan military base.
The M23 movement was founded by Laurent Nkunda, a former Congolese general who led a rebellion against his former comrades in eastern Congo. But the mutiny was commanded by Bosco Ntaganda, a former Congolese rebel and accused war criminal who appointed a general of the Congolese army (known as the FARDC), in 2005 as part of a peace deal and Col. Sultani Makenga, another defector, who is likely to face U.N. sanctions for his role in the mutiny. But the supreme leader of the M23, the panel alleged, is James Kabarebe, Rwanda's defense minister, a charge the Rwandan government has denied.
The Group of Experts accused the rebel movement of extensive human rights abuses, including the forced recruitment of hundreds of young boys and girls into the movement, and the "extra-judicial executions of dozens of recruits and prisoners of war."
In August and September, Colonel Makenga ordered a notorious Congolese militia group, Raia Mutomboki, "to carry out brutal ethnically motivated attacks, burning over 800 homes and killings hundreds of civilians from Congolese communities" in eastern Congo, according to the experts' report.
The group of experts has recommended that the U.N. Security Council sanctions committed call on Uganda and Rwanda to "cease" violations of the arms embargo and to submit regular reports on what measures they are taking "to halt the activities of the M23." It also calls on member states to review and consider future military assistance to Rwanda and Uganda."
Security Council diplomats are unwilling, for now, to single out Rwanda and Uganda for condemnation in the council. Any effort to pressure Kigali to halt its alleged support for the M23 will be complicated by Rwanda's recent election to the U.N. Security Council, where it will begin serving a two-year term on January 1.
The expert group first accused Rwanda of sponsoring the M23 back in June, prompting the United States, Britain, and other European governments to freeze military assistance and other aid.
But council diplomats have shown less enthusiasm for taking on Uganda, which provides a vital logistic base for U.N. peacekeepers in Congo, and which is leading diplomatic efforts to end the violence in eastern Congo. They also note that Uganda stands accused of playing a far less central role in backing the M23 than Rwanda.
Throughout the week, senior council diplomats and U.N. officials have sought to keep the Ugandan letter secret, and downplayed the gravity of Kampala's threat, saying that the country's 6,500 troops serving in a U.N.-backed African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia have not been formally ordered back to the barracks. They hope that they can gradually convince the Ugandans to back down.
Some officials say they suspect that Uganda simply needs to blow off steam and that they will recognize that it is not in their long-term interest to withdraw from regional peace efforts, which have boosted their political standing in the region. Earlier this week, Secretary General Ban reached out to President Museveni to convince him to cool down. But the issue is not likely to disappear. The Group of Experts is scheduled to brief the U.N. Security Council sanctions committee on Monday. And diplomatic sources say they will present new evidence of alleged Rwandan and Uganda support for the mutiny.
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If you felt your life was on hold the past week or so, as the U.S. election entered its final stretch, take comfort -- so was the rest of the world, at least at the United Nations. The U.S. political campaign placed a number of U.N. foreign-policy priorities, including Afghanistan, Syria, and Iran, on the backburner.COMMENTS (0) SHARE: Share on twitter Twitter Share on reddit Reddit More...
But within hours of President Barack Obama's reelection, the United States had begun to turn its attention to deferred business, agreeing Wednesday, for instance, to set a date for resumption of negotiations on the establishment of a new arms trade treaty.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, meanwhile, used his congratulatory message to President Obama to draw Washington's attention to four key priorities -- ending the bloodshed in Syria, restarting the Middle East peace process, promoting sustainable development, and tackling climate change -- requiring greater American engagement.
There are a number of areas, including arms control and possibly climate change, where the administration may show renewed vigor in a second term, according to U.N. observers. But they cautioned that movement on a second-term agenda would start slow, given the months it will likely take to put a new foreign policy team in place. The king, said one observer, will be the same, but the royal court will be new.
The administration will face the first test of its standing at the United Nations on Monday, when it will participate in its first competitive election for a seat on the Human Rights Council, facing off with Germany, Greece, Ireland, and Sweden for three Western spots on the U.N.'s main rights body. Washington has been aggressively campaigning for the post, seeking to avert an embarrassing loss. "People are nervous about it; they don't think it in the bag," said one U.N.-based source.
Observers said they did not foresee the administration pursuing a particularly ambitious agenda at the United Nations. Richard Gowan, an expert on the United Nations at New York University's Center on International Cooperation, said he saw little likelihood that the U.S. would move, for instance, to join the International Criminal Court, push for ratification of the Comprehensive [Nuclear] Test Ban Treaty, or press for expansion of the U.N. Security Council. "Just as Obama was burdened with excessive expectations at the start of his first term I think quite a lot of leaders may have excessive expectations of what he will do now that he is reelected," Gowan said.
So, what will a second term Obama administration pull off the backburner and pursue with renewed vigor? Read the full list here.
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
When Superstorm Sandy's surge swept up on the shores of Manhattan's east side on Monday, Oct. 29, the United Nations went off the grid.
A 14-foot wall of salty floodwater poured from the East River into the landmark building's basement, disabling the electrical and cooling system, and shutting down the computer server that links the U.N. Secretariat staff with diplomats, foreign missions, and the press.
A backup database in New Jersey was unable to reconnect the U.N.'s nerve center in New York with the outside world.
The result was that the United Nations, the world's premier humanitarian relief organization, was largely invisible as a punishing storm inflicted significant pain on a wide swath of America, just outside its own front door.
"Disaster preparedness is one of the planks of the United Nations.... We try to walk the talk," Denmark's U.N. ambassador, Carsten Staur, said in a budget committee that turned into a forum for blasting the U.N.'s response in the days following the storm. "It is clear that this has been a blow to any kind of U.N. authority in that field that we can't even manage our own business when it comes to a situation like this."
Governments' criticisms of the U.N. response to Hurricane Sandy reflected a deeper discontent over the fading public role of the United Nations in the world, highlighted by the almost total lack of coverage by the media during the storm.
Turtle Bay, which reported the breakdown following the storm, was unable to secure an answer to even simple question: whether the U.N. General Assembly, which had a cover of plastic sheeting torn off by the hurricane, had any leaks. It would more than two and a half days before senior U.N. officials briefed the press on the matter.
The vacuum was highlighted by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's absence, and his spokesman's almost total lack of public outreach during the first days of the storm. (Ban issued his first statement on the storm on late Thursday afternoon, almost three days after the center of the storm punched through lower New York City.
"We all feel that the United Nations has disappeared from the screen for quite a long time," said Algeria's U.N. envoy, Mourad Benmehidi, who was speaking on behalf of the Group of 77 developing countries. "I still have the sentiment that we were out of touch: no mention of the United Nations for six, seven days."
Some officials said one of the reasons the foreign diplomatic community was so angry was that they blamed U.N. management for the destruction of dozens of diplomatic vehicles inside the compound.
A Singaporean diplomat said that the U.N. Office of Central Support Services had sent U.N. delegations an email on Ocobter 24 instructing them to park their cars in the U.N.'s lower basement area, because construction was going on above them. "A subsequent email advising missions to move their cars from the basement there was only received on Monday, at which time it was impossible or hazardous for our mission staff to travel to the United Nations," said the diplomat.
Germany's deputy U.N. ambassador, Miguel Berger, said that the U.N. had sent the email to the wrong email address. "We lost two cars in the garage and afterward we found out the mail address, the mail which was direct to the German mission was a mail address that is non-existent."
Yukio Takasu, a former Japanese diplomat who serves as the U.N.'s undersecretary general for management, and Gregory Starr, the former State Department security chief who serves as U.N. undersecretary for safety and security, defended the U.N.'s handling of the crisis, while acknowledging that some mistakes had been made.
But their fairly upbeat briefing yesterday, which highlighted the sacrifices of U.N. staff in getting the building back and running, only angered the delegates. "I don't agree with the self-congratulatory assessment of Mr. Gregory Starr," Benmehidi said. "Let's be more humble in addressing this situation."
"Today, is the time for anger management," he said.
Benmehidi said that the U.N. had not only been cut off from the world, but from the diplomatic community in New York. "The only email my mission received is from Marjorie Tivens, in charge of relations with the missions in the city of New York." Tivens, who happens to be Mayor Michael Bloomberg's sister, is an employee of the city, not the United Nations.
Staur sought to reinforce the Algerian delegation's point, saying that the U.N. secretariat had made no effort to harness the support of the U.N.'s 192 governments to relay communications to the diplomatic community on behalf of the organization. "That that didn't happen was basically, I think, a total breakdown of communication."
He said the U.N.'s leadership had also utterly failed in using the storm as an opportunity to show the institution's compassion to its victims. He said the U.N. headquarters itself -- which has just completed a $1billion-plus renovation intended to be a model of sustainable design -- "was supposed to be a state-of-the-art example of how to build, because we wanted the U.N. to display how to do things. That basically has not been the case."
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.