Britain and France have informed the United Nations there is credible evidence that Syria has fired chemical weapons more than once in the past several months, according to senior U.N.-based diplomats and officials briefed on the accounts.
In letters to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the two European powers have detailed at least three instances of suspected chemical weapons used in or around the cities of Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus, since last December. The claims are based on a range of corroborating evidence -- including nerve agent soil samples, witness interviews, opposition sources, and accounts by medical experts who observed victims' symptoms, according to diplomats..
If proven, the allegations would provide the first hard evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria's civil war. And it would increase political pressure on the Obama administration to take steps to halt their future use.
President Barack Obama has warned that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a "game changer" for the United States. Following the Aleppo incident, Obama said the United States would "investigate thoroughly exactly what happened" and that he had instructed "teams to work closely with all other countries in the region and international organizations and institutions to find out precisely whether this red line was crossed."
But diplomats say the United States has responded cautiously. The United States, said one Security Council diplomat, has been "less activist on this" than Britain and France. "You can draw your conclusions as to why that might be."
The Europeans' presentation of their findings to the United Nations are in part aimed at countering claims by the Syrian government that armed opposition elements fired chemical weapons at Syrian forces on March 19, killing 26 people, including Syrian troops. European diplomats acknowledge that Syrian troops may have been exposed to a chemical agent during the March 19 attack, but they claim that they were hit in a "friendly fire" attack by a Syrian shell that missed an opposition target.
In making its case, Britain informed Ban in a confidential letter that it had obtained evidence confirming that Syrian forces had indeed been hit by a projectile containing the chemical agent in the town of Khan al-Asal.
The Syrian army, Britain claims, fired a chemical shell at a public facility suspected of harboring opposition elements, but that it veered off target, striking a Syrian government installation. Britain also informed the U.N. it has obtained a soil sample identifying the agent as "similar to sarin," according to a senior Western diplomat familiar with the case. But it remained unclear where the sample was located. The London Times, reported earlier this week that British intelligence had obtained a soil sample "of some kind of chemical weapon" near Damascus, though it cited a source saying. "It can't be definitively be said to be sarin nerve agent."
On March 20, Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari, invited the U.N. to send an "impartial" technical team to Syria confirm the opposition's use of chemical weapons in the town of Khan al-Asal near Aleppo. Russia strongly endorsed the Syrian request.
The U.N. chief quickly agreed to establish a fact-finding team and appointed a Swedish chemical weapons expert, Ake Sellstrom, to lead it. But the effort to deploy the team in Syria has bogged down over a big power dispute over the scope of the investigation.
Britain and France opposed the Syrian request for a narrow U.N. investigation into the single incident -- out of concern that the U.N. would be unable to prove who fired the chemical weapon, and that the physical evidence could be used to support the Syrian government's claim that it was a victim. Instead, they convinced Ban to expand the inquiry to include the examination of opposition claims that Syrian authorities used chemical weapons in Homs and Damascus. "There was a strong effort to foil the Syrian government narrative and urge the secretary general not to fall into that trap."
Ban agreed on March 21 to expand the investigation.
On Friday, Angela Kane, the U.N. undersecretary for disarmament affairs, informed Syrian foreign minister, Walid Muallem, that the U.N. team would focus initially on the incident at Khan al-Asal, near Aleppo. But she added that Ban "has concluded the mission should also investigate the facts related to the reported incident on 23 December 2012 in Homs," according to an confidential communication.
The U.S. State Department carried out an internal investigation into the incident earlier this year, according to a report by Foreign Policy's blog, The Cable. Claims by opposition elements that Syria used chemical weapons in a March 19 attack in Ataybah town, near Damascus, are less persuasive than the other two cases.
Syria balked at the request to expand the investigation, and the two sides remained at an impasse. Despite repeated pleas from Ban, Damascus has not let the U.N. inspectors into the country.
Russia has vigorously backed the Syrian government's request, denouncing the European call for an expanded investigation as a ploy to delay the Aleppo inquiry.
On Monday, Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, speaking during a closed door Security Council luncheon with the U.N. secretary general, scolded Ban for failing to accept the Syrian government's terms. "He gave him an earful," said one senior council diplomat who attended the luncheon.
The U.N. has written to Britain, France, and Syria, requesting further information and cooperation. Officials said the investigation team, currently in Cyprus, would likely travel to Britain to examine its soil sample, and interview Syrian refugees that may have been exposed to chemical agents.
In a press conference Wednesday, Ban told reporters that he would proceed with an investigation into the incidents outside the country. "I have been urging the Syrian government to show flexibility in accepting the proposed modalities," he said. "While awaiting consent from the Syrian government, the mission will proceed with its fact-finding activities. To this end, specific information has been requested from the governments concerned."
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The U.N. recently issued updated its guidelines for its senior officials on the etiquette of consorting with world leaders and lesser suspects that stand accused of committing massive war crimes.
Seems that would be a pretty obvious "no, no," but it's not as simple as it seems.
The latest regulations reaffirm existing U.N. guidelines restricting U.N. brass from most dealings with Sudan's leader, Omar al-Bashir, who stands accused by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of masterminding a campaign of genocide in Darfur several years ago.
But there are virtually no restrictions on dealings with Kenya's new leader, President Uhuru Kenyatta, who stands accused of orchestrating the killing, rape, and displacement of thousands of civilians from the cities of Nakura and Naivasha who were suspected of backing a rival political faction during the country's disputed election in 2008.
So, what's the difference between the court's treatment of Bashir and Kenyatta?
For starters, Kenyatta has recognized the court's legitimacy and appeared in The Hague to face the charges. Bashir hasn't.
The U.N. policy is crafted to reward suspects who cooperate with the Hague-based tribunal. Under the new guidelines, the ICC will issue a summons to a suspected war criminal who volunteers to face charges before the Hague court. But if a suspect makes it clear they won't appear, then the court will issue a formal arrest warrant, which places a legal obligation on governments that have ratified the treaty creating the war crimes court to surrender the individual.
The U.N., which signed a relationship agreement that requires it to refrain from undermining the ICC, reasons that contacts with cooperative suspects "do not undermine the authority of the court."
"U.N. officials may interact without restrictions with persons who are the subject of a summons to appear issued by the ICC and who are cooperating with the ICC," read the guidelines, which were presented to the U.N. Security Council earlier this month. A copy was obtained by Turtle Bay.
But the privilege can be taken away if Kenyatta halts his cooperation with the court. Kenyatta hinted at that possibility, declaring in his inauguration that Kenya intended to uphold its international obligations, but only if its relations with international institutions were based on "mutual respect" and affirmed Kenya's sovereignty. Since then, Kenyan officials have been pushing back. Last week, Kenya's deputy U.N. ambassador Koko Muli Grignon told the U.N. General Assembly that the ICC has no right to prosecute Kenyan nationals without the consent of the government, and that the case against Kenyatta and other Kenyan nationals should be transferred to a Kenyan court. The Hague-based tribunal, she added, "should be a "court of last resort."
Court observers find Kenyatta's remarks troubling.
"I think there is a concern that they may be backtracking," said Richard Dicker, an expert at Human Rights Watch, who noted that the ICC is only pursuing the case because "the Kenyan authorities have failed for several years to take action domestically."
For the time being, Dicker said, the ICC guidelines make sense for legal and policy purposes. First, he said, they affirm the "presumption of innocence" for the accused, including Kenyatta, who has not been convicted of a crime. The policy also serves as an incentive for suspects to cooperate with the court.
There are also practical considerations for making an exception for someone like Kenyatta. The U.N.'s African headquarters is stationed in Nairobi, providing support for peacekeeping, humanitarian, and anti-poverty missions throughout the continent. A breakdown in the relationship with the Kenyan leader could complicate the U.N.'s ability to do its work. In a sign of Kenya's importance, U.S. and European ambassadors attended Kenyatta's presidential inauguration. And Ban Ki-moon even sent a letter congratulating Kenyatta for his win.
The U.N.'s experience in Sudan, where the international body manages several major stability operations, has demonstrated how difficult it can be to shun a leader in a country's whose cooperation the U.N. depends on.
Ban's office chided the former chief of the African Union-U.N. peacekeeping mission in Darfur, Ibrahim Gambari, for attending a wedding where Bashir was also a guest [*See note below]. Last month, a U.N. Development Program official in Chad participated in a diplomatic welcoming committee that received Bashir at the airport, which prompted a call by Tiina Intelmann, the president of the ICC's Assembly of State's Parties, to senior U.N. officials to express concern about the incident. UNDP acknowledged that it had erred.
"The Officer-in-Charge of UNDP's country office in Chad...was requested by the Chad Government to form part of a receiving line for Heads of State arriving at the airport," said UNDP spokeswoman Christina LoNigro. "There he was introduced by President [Idriss] Deby to the Presidents of Senegal, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Sudan, and Benin. UNDP has taken this encounter, which runs counter to UN policy seriously, and has drawn the attention of all staff in the region to the policy."
Intellman welcomed the U.N. decision to release the guidelines, and said that member states of the ICC treaty body are trying to negotiate their own guidelines. She also voiced sympathy for the challenge posed by U.N. officials.
“The situations in which UN officials find themselves are quite complex,” she told Turtle Bay. She acknowledged that there are legitimate cases "where U.N. officials have to make essential contacts with indictees," highlighting U.N. efforts to promote peace deals.
So, what then is a U.N. official to do avoid an inappropriate encounter with an alleged mass murder? Here are some key pointers, from the new guidelines:
• It can be anticipated that persons who are the subject of arrest warrants issued by the ICC may deliberately seek to meet with UN officials in order to demonstrate their contempt for the ICC and try to undermine its authority.
• Contacts between U.N. officials and person who are the subject to warrants of arrest issued by the ICC should be limited to those which are strictly required for carrying out essential UN mandate activities.
• As a general rule, there should be no meetings between U.N. officials and person who are the subject of warrants of arrest issued by the ICC.
• There should be no ceremonial meetings with such persons and standard courtesy calls should not be paid. The same holds true of receptions, photo opportunities, attendance at national day celebrations and so on. If the person holds a position of authority in a state, every effort should be made to meet and liaise with individuals other than the person in order to conduct business.
• This being said, there may be a need, in exceptional circumstances, to interact directly with a person who is subject of an ICC arrest warrant. Where this is imperative for the performance of essential U.N. mandate activities, direct interaction with such a person may take place to the extent necessary only.
The current guidelines also include an explicit exemption for the U.N. secretary general -- who met with Bashir in Tehran in August -- and the deputy secretary general to meet with Bashir and other accused war criminals "from time to time" in order to discuss "fundamental issues affecting the ability of the United Nations and its various offices, programs and funds to carry out their mandates in the country concerned, including vital matters of security."
Court advocates like Dicker say the exemption can be justified if used sparingly. "Making clear that there are some exceptions is acceptable, but the devil will be in the details." He said any exception should adhere to "an appropriately narrow application or interpretation." For instance, U.N. officials must learn to turn down invitations to war criminals' nuptials. The trick, he said, is to insure this doesn't become "the exception that ate the rule."
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*Note: an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Ibrahim Gambari attended the wedding of President Bashir's daughter. It was the wedding of Janjaweed leader Musa Hilal. Bashir was in attendence.
This, I think, needs repeating.
When it comes to Syria, the United Nations is stuck.
You could almost be forgiven for thinking otherwise, given the extraordinary number of meetings, investigations, and resolutions currently devoted to resolving a crisis that has left more than 70,000 dead and raised the specter of chemical warfare.
On March 21, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced plans to send a U.N. team to Syria to investigate claims of chemical weapons use. I haven't spoken to a single diplomat or U.N. official who believes the team will ever be let into the country.
In the U.N. General Assembly, Qatar is asking governments to support a resolution that would bolster the Syrian rebels' international legitimacy. A final-watered down version may ultimately be passed, but like previous UNGA resolutions on Syria, its impact will be largely symbolic -- another stern demonstration of Syria's diplomatic isolation.
Lakdhar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria, is scheduled to brief the U.N. Security Council on April 19, regarding his latest efforts to persuade the warring factions to agree to a political transition. Prospects for a peaceful transition have never looked bleaker.
There's a long history of diplomatic standstills generating a flurry of diplomatic action leading nowhere. In Darfur, Sudan, the U.N. Security Council once authorized a U.N. peacekeeping mission even though it was clear Khartoum would not let it into the country. In Bosnia, the council created U.N. safe havens that it couldn't be defend.
Syria is no different.
"The UN has been entirely cut out ... and I think there is no reason to believe any of these current activities is going to make the slightest difference on the ground," said Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. "What you see at the U.N. are diplomats creating noise to conceal the fact that they are not making progress."
It's unfair to write the U.N. off entirely.
The U.N. has been at the forefront of international efforts to raise concern about human rights abuses in Syria, while organizing the world's humanitarian response and collecting a catalogue of evidence of war crimes that could ultimately be used to hold some of Syria's worst human rights violators accountable for their crimes. And Ban has been outspoken in scolding the perpetrators of violence and pushing major powers to step up to the plate.
"On Syria, this is a most troubling situation where all the leaders of the world should really take a much more strengthened leadership role," Ban said after a meeting in the Oval Office with President Barack Obama. "I have asked President Obama to demonstrate and exercise his stronger leadership in working with key partners of the Security Council."
But the council -- the only U.N. institution that has real clout -- has been paralyzed by a big power dispute between China and Russia on one side, and the United States, Europe, and Arab governments on the other. The dispute poisons virtually every discussion.
The chemical weapons investigation is a case in point.
Last month, the Syrian government asked the U.N. secretary general to investigate its claim that Syrian rebels used chemical weapons in a March 19 attack that killed 26 people, including 16 Syrian soldiers. Russia quickly rallied to Syria's defense, urging Ban to carry out the investigation as swiftly as possible.
But Britain and France, citing opposition claims that the Syrian government used chemical weapons, subsequently urged Ban to expand the investigation to include alleged incidents in Homs and Damascus. Ban agreed to look at all cases.
Syria, meanwhile, balked, insisting that U.N. could only investigate the single case in Aleppo. Russia has largely backed Syria's position, and made it clear that it would not allow the council to be used to pressure Syria to consent.
There has been no independent confirmation that chemical weapons were used, nor has there been confirmation that such munitions were used in some other recent cases, as alleged by the opposition. But Britain and France have presented the United Nations with information indicating numerous possible incidents of chemical weapons use.
Lacking Security Council support, Ban this week sought to coax Damascus into granting visas by announcing that the inspection team had already traveled to Cyprus, and was ready to go to Syria within 24 hours. "They are now ready to go," Ban reiterated following his meeting with Obama.
But U.N. officials and diplomats say privately that Syria, which has already refused Ban's terms for the probe, is unlikely to let the team in. "We're at an impasse," said one council diplomat.. "It doesn't look good."
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U.N. peacekeeping has its own caste system.
Rich countries pay most of the financial cost of keeping the peace. Poorer countries provide the peacekeepers. These days, they also die in far higher numbers than their wealthier counterparts.
No country has paid the price as often as India.
On Tuesday, India lost five of its U.N. blue helmets, who were ambushed by a force of 200 unidentified armed fighters in South Sudan. Five other Indian peacekeepers were badly injured. "We are in a process of assimilating the information about what happened," said Manjeev Singh Puri, the charge d'affaires at India's mission to the United Nations. "These soldiers have acquitted themselves with bravery,"
This is not the first time that India -- which has deployed more than 160,000 of its soldiers over the past 60 years in peacekeeping missions, more than any other nation -- has taken peacekeeping losses.
Since the dawn of U.N. peacekeeping, 154 Indian peacekeepers have died in the line of duty, more than any other country. Other developing nations, including Nigeria (135), Pakistan (132), Ghana (130), and Bangladesh (112), have posted large casualty figures.
Compare that with the U.N.'s top financial donors' death tally: the United States (70, although only a fraction have occurred in the past 15 years), France (108), Britain (103), Germany (15), South Korea (9), and Japan (5).
It was not always like this. In the first decade of U.N. peacekeeping, the majority of international casualties, some 41 out of 45 fatalities, were from Western armies. In the 1990s, the United States, France, Britain, and other Western powers formed the core of U.N. peacekeeping missions, sending tens of thousands of their troops to Cambodia, Somalia, and the Balkans. U.N. peacekeeping stalwarts that endured heavy fatalities in these causes and others include Canada (121), Ireland (90), and Sweden (67).
But many of those countries have since retreated from U.N. peacekeeping, preferring to serve in NATO-backed operations in Afghanistan, and leaving it to the developed world to stand sentry at the far reaches of the world.
Edward Luck, a historian and dean of the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego, said that Western governments have found it more difficult to maintain political support for U.N. peacekeeping after suffering serious losses.
In contrast, he noted, India, Pakistan, and other developed countries have been able to sustain far larger casualties in U.N. missions. Pakistan, for instance, lost 40 peacekeepers in the U.N. mission in Somalia in the early 1990s, but it had little impact on its willingness to sign up for more. For many developed countries, according to Luck, participation in peacekeeping has a financial motive. "The U.N. pay scale is higher than what they can pay their own forces," he said. "I don't think that's true for countries like India and Pakistan," he added, noting that their peacekeeping role elevates their standing on the international stage. India frequently cites its peacekeeping service in making a case for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.
The United States, Luck recalled, largely ended its U.N. peacekeeping role in Somalia -- where it lost a total of 44 soldiers -- after the "Black Hawk Down" incident, an ill-fated military raid which resulted in the death of 18 U.S. Rangers and Delta Force operatives. Although the U.S. team was not serving under U.N. command at the time, the American public blamed the United Nations. In May 1994, President Bill Clinton signed a presidential directive that imposed strict conditions for U.S. involvement.
The Belgians and the Dutch suffered setbacks in Rwanda, where 10 Belgian peacekeepers were killed by Hutu extremists during the 1994 genocide, and Bosnia, where a small contingent of Dutch blue helmets were powerless to halt the mass killing in Srebrenica. Both countries subsequently scaled back their participation in U.N. peacekeeping missions.
Bruce Jones, the director of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, says that the number of troops allocated to a given peacekeeping mission provides an incomplete measure of Western powers' commitment to run risk in foreign stabilization operations, noting that U.S. and European troops in Afghanistan have endured far higher casualty figures than their counterparts in U.N. peacekeeping.
France, too, has shown an increasing willingness to participate in peace operations in Africa, even if it continues to deploy its forces under French command. "My bet is as the battle-hardened West pivots out of Afghanistan we will see a greater willingness by Western governments to participate in a major way in blue-helmeted operations and to take risks," Jones said.
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The Obama administration, Canada, and possibly other governments will boycott a U.N. General Assembly session being convened tomorrow on international justice because of concern that the Serbian president of the U.N. body will use the event to bash the U.N. tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, according to senior U.N. diplomats.
The U.S. snub comes one week after Jordan's U.N. ambassador, Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid al-Hussein, a former U.N. political officer in Bosnia in the 1990s, announced plans in this blog to boycott the event. It comes as Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic , is scheduled to arrive in New York city tomorrow to open the day-long thematic debate, entitled "The Role of International Justice in Reconciliation."
The United States declined to comment on its plans. But Zeid confirmed that the United States and Canada intend to forgo the event. "I am very pleased the United States, Canada, and possibly others are boycotting," the event, Zeid told Turtle Bay tonight.
Vuk Jeremic, a former Serbian foreign minister who is serving as president of the 193-member General Assembly, decided to organize the conference late last year, following the acquittal by an appeals chamber of the International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) of two Croatian generals, Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac. The two men had been convicted lower court of carrying out mass atrocities against ethnic Serbs during Operation Storm in the Kraijina region of Croatia.
The timing of the U.N. event -- the meeting coincides with the 71st anniversary of the founding of the pro-Nazi Croatian state -- has fueled concerns among many delegates that the event will be used to bash the tribunal.
Jeremic, an outspoken critic of the ICTY, said that the debate would not be restricted to a debate on the Balkans, and that governments could debate any aspect of international justice they chose.
In an interview tonight, Jeremic said that the United States had not informed him of its plans for tomorrow's event. "If it is true it would be highly regrettable," he said. "Eighty countries have signed up to speak, either directly or as a group, and we expect many more to be present."
"I think this topic is worth debating," he said. "Therefore I find it highly regrettable if some countries chose to boycott."
The Yugoslav court, which has indicted more than 90 Serbian nationals, including former President Slobodan Milosevic, has been unpopular among many Serbs, who feel it has gone too soft on Croatian and Bosnian Muslim war criminals. Jeremic has been a staunch critic.
Last week, Zeid voiced concern that Jeremic would manipulate the debate to minimize the crimes of Serbs in the Balkans during the 1990s. "I was in the former Yugoslavia from 1994-1996 and, in view of what I know to be true, will also, together with my delegation, be nowhere near the event," Zeid told Turtle Bay last week. " We will encourage other delegations in the coming days to do likewise."
Zeid said that Jeremic had denied a request by the Mothers of Srebrenica, a Bosnian human rights group that represents victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, to address the U.N. General Assembly, though he did invite them to attend. Instead, the group will hold a press conference at U.N. headquarters sponsored by the governments of Jordan and Liechtenstein.
Tomorrow's session will include two parts, public debate by governments in the U.N. General Assembly, and a pair of afternoon panel discussions. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is planning to deliver a speech at the opening of the General Assembly Session. The European Union is also scheduled to deliver a speech. But many governments, including Britain, are expected to send relatively junior officials to the event.
In recent weeks, several prominent attendees -- including the president of the International Criminal Court, Song Sang-Hyun -- who had previously planned to attend the conference have pulled out of the event. Others include the president of the Assembly of States Parties for the International Criminal Court, Tina Intelmann; the U.N. secretary general's special advisor on the prevention of genocide, Adama Dieng; the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth; and the U.N. secretary general's lawyer, Patricia O'Brien.
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For a start, several of my better informed Twitter followers. And U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
The U.N. leader today singled out Thatcher's early contribution to the debate on global warming, crediting the former prime minister as "one of the first world leaders to issue a warning about its effects by calling for action at the U.N. General Assembly already in 1989."
In that November 1989 address, Thatcher issued a call for binding agreements to regulate the production of heat-trapping gases that cause global warming.
"The threat to our world comes not only from tyrants and their tanks. It can be more insidious though less visible," Thatcher said two years later, at a meeting of the Second World Climate Conference at the Palais des Nations. "The danger of global warming is as yet unseen, but real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices, so that we do not live at the expense of future generations."
Thatcher's concerns about the threat posed by climate change drew on her own background as a scientist. But in 1988, according to the BBC, she "shocked" the Royal Society with an unexpected and emotionally charged September speech, in which she appealed to the attendees to pay heed to the tell-tale signs of environmental doom.
"For generations, we have assumed that the efforts of mankind would leave the fundamental equilibrium of the world's systems and atmosphere stable," she told the society. "But it is possible that with all these enormous changes (population, agricultural, use of fossil fuels) concentrated into such a short period of time, we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself."
Roger Harrabin, the BBC's environmental analyst, wrote this morning that Thatcher "later recanted, voicing fears that climate had become a left-wing vehicle." Harrabin also recalled that two days before the U.N. speech, Britain had blocked a proposal at a climate conference in the Netherlands calling for a 20 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2005. "But her earlier remarks had already changed the institutional landscape."
"Funny old world, innit?" the Independent's Michael McCarthy wrote this morning. "These days, if you're a right-wing Conservative, or a right-wing commentator or blogger, it is virtually a badge of honor to proclaim that all this global warming stuff, and action taken to counter it, is a load of cobblers."
I guess you could say equally that it has been something of a badge of honor for left-wing Liberals to denounce Thatcher's conservatism. But not, it seems, her views on the environment.
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(Thanks to @pandes4 @davidsteven @sunnysingh_nw3 @jossgarman @rowandavies for the helpful links on Thatcher's environmental record.)
The United Nations is ready to deploy a chemical weapons inspection team in Syria within 24 hours, but Syria has yet to give the green light to enter the country, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in The Hague, Netherlands, where he is attending a review conference on the Chemical Weapons Convention.
The diplomatic standoff comes weeks after the government in Damascus invited the United Nations to Syria to investigate its claim that Syrian rebels used chemical weapons in an attack in the city of Aleppo. But the lack of progress suggests that Syria misjudged the U.N.'s willingness to carry out an investigation on Syria's terms.
So far, Syria has refused the U.N.'s request to expand the investigation to investigate the country's undeclared chemical weapons stockpile or to consider counterclaims by the Syrian opposition that it's Syrian forces that used chemical weapons against them. Britain and France have formally asked Ban to expand the mission to consider all claims, a move that was quickly denounced by Syria's principle big power ally, Russia, as a ploy to delay and derail the investigation sought by Damascus.
"Syria wants to limit the investigation to one site only," said a senior U.N. official. But the "secretary general feels he has a responsibility to make sure the team can investigate other claims."
Ban used his trip to The Hague to increase pressure on Syria to allow the inspectors in. Following a meeting with the Swedish head of the U.N. investigation team, Ake Sellstrom, Ban told reporters that the inspectors are ready to go.
"I can announce today that an advance team is now on the ground in Cyprus, the final staging point to undertake the mission in Syria," Ban said, adding that Sellstrom would be in Cyprus by tomorrow. "The United Nations investigation mission is now in a position to deploy in Syria in less than 24 hours. All technical and logistical arrangements are in place."
Ban said he is committed to investigating "all possible uses of chemical weapons in Syria. Now all we are waiting for is the go-ahead from the Syrian government for a thorough investigation to determine whether any chemical weapons were used in any location."
The decision to deploy inspectors comes just weeks after the U.N. withdrew most of its international staff from Damascus, citing the deteriorating security. Ban said that he is "assured" by Syrian commitments that "all security and safety will be guaranteed by the Syrian authorities." But he said the team would also rely on support from a U.N. security team.
The United Nations top disarmament official, Germany's Angela Kane, has been engaged in intensive negotiations with Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar Al Jaafari, over the inspectors' mandate. Last week, Reuters reported that Jaafari informed Kane in a letter that the U.N. would require only limited access to the location in Aleppo where they claimed chemical weapons had been used. He also indicated that the government wanted a say in the selection of international inspectors, a request that the U.N. rejected.
In today's remarks, Ban urged "the Syrian government to be more flexible on this matter so that this mission can be deployed as soon as possible," he said. "The longer we take, the harder it will be to gather samples and evidence."
"My position, as I have said this morning, is clear, that all claims should be investigated, without exception, without any conditions," Ban added.
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Jordan will boycott a controversial U.N. session on international criminal justice and reconciliation, because of concerns that the Serbian president of the General Assembly will use the event to marshal unfair criticism of the U.N. tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Jordan's ambassador to the U.N., Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid al-Hussein, outlined his intention in a meeting with Arab ambassadors last week and will raise it on Friday with representatives of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. He also blocked a move by the Non-Aligned movement, a bloc of 120 developing countries, to issue a statement in support of the April 10 meeting.
The one-man protest is somewhat quixotic -- as few other countries have expressed an interest in following his example. But it provided a rare case of a senior U.N. diplomat -- one who served as a U.N. political officer in Bosnia when Bosnian Serb forces massacred thousands of Bosnian Muslim men in Srebrenica -- throwing a wrench into the diplomatic niceties at the U.N.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which has indicted more than 90 Serbian nationals, including former President Slobodan Milosevic, has been unpopular among many Serbs, who feel it has gone too soft on Croatian and Bosnian Muslim war criminals. Vuk Jeremic, the former Serbian foreign minister who is serving as president of the U.N. General Assembly, has been a sharp critic of the court. He scheduled the April 10 meeting after the court's appeal chamber acquitted two Croatian generals, Ante Gotovina and Mladic Markac, convicted by a lower court of carrying out mass atrocities against ethnic Serbs during Operation Storm in the Kraijina region of Croatia.
The timing of the U.N. event -- the meeting coincides with the 71st anniversary of the founding of the pro-Nazi Croatian state -- has fueled concerns among many delegates that the event will be used to bash the tribunal, and that Jeremic is stacking the attendees of a pair of panels with critics of the court.
In a recent interview, Jeremic said that while he had selected the date to honor the victims of the Croatian fascists during World War II he saw the event as an opportunity to ponder the lessons learned from a broad range of international U.N. courts established since the end of the Cold War. He also said that his own efforts to include a balanced slate of speakers has been confounded by unnamed states who have pressured them not to participate.
In recent weeks, several prominent attendees -- including the president of the International Criminal Court, Song Sang-Hyun -- who had previously planned to attend the conference have pulled out of the event, Jeremic confirmed. Others include the president of the Assembly of States Parties for the International Criminal Court, Tina Intelmann; the U.N. secretary general's special advisor on the prevention of genocide, Adama Dieng; the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth; and the U.N. secretary general's lawyer, Patricia O'Brien, according to Jeremic.
The Jordanian diplomat's action is motivated by his own personal experience in Bosnia in the 1990s, where he served as a U.N. peacekeeper. In 1998, Zeid helped spearhead a General Assembly resolution calling on the Secretary General Kofi Annan to conduct a review of the U.N.'s response to the massacre in Srebrenica.
Zeid has also been a chief proponent of international justice. He served from 2002 to 2005 as the first president of the Assembly of States Parties for the International Criminal Court.
"The president of the General Assembly has done little to conceal his motives regarding the thematic debate on the 10th of April, which has prompted many of the more notable early participants to withdraw," Zeid told Turtle Bay. "They are not fooled. I was in the former Yugoslavia from 1994-1996 and, in view of what I know to be true, will also, together with my delegation, be nowhere near the event. We will encourage other delegations in the coming days to do likewise."
The United States and European governments have also raised concerns with Jeremic in private about the timing of the event and his handling of the conference, which will begin with a public meeting of the full General Assembly, including a speech by Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, and then break off into two separate afternoon panel discussions. But they have stopped short of boycotting, and intend to send lower-ranking diplomats to the event to register their displeasure, according to diplomats. The U.S. mission to the United Nations declined to comment on the event. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's office said recently that Ban would attend the session, unless he was out of town.
Christian Wenewaser, Liechtenstein's U.N. ambassador, who also served as the president of the ICC's Assembly of States Parties, shared many of Zeid's concern about Jeremic's handling of the event. He said that while he welcomed a debate on international criminal justice, Jeremic had focused the too narrowly on the Yugoslav tribunal and that he has ignored expressions of concern from other member states. But he is not prepared to join Zeid's boycott. "Unfortunately, this is a lost opportunity that could have been a good thing, which is now not going to be a good thing," he said.
"We haven't decided that boycotting the event is the most effective way of dealing with this," he added. "There is also an argument in favor of saying the right thing and if no one is there will be no one to say the right thing."
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.