The U.N. Security Council this morning authorized the creation of a new force of 12,640 U.N. peacekeepers to consolidate French military gains against Islamist militants in northern Mali.
The new force -- to be called the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Force (MINUSMA) and comprised primarily of African soldiers -- is expected to secure several northern towns, where an insurgency by Islamic militants and Tuareg separatists was recently put down by French special forces and their feeble Malian army allies.
The council's action comes as the French military -- which intervened last January in Mali at the government's invitation to repulse what they feared was an all-out offensive on the capital -- is looking to withdraw most of its forces from Mali, and to place the U.N. in command of thousands of African troops that have already deployed in Mali in support of the French operation.
But the mandate adopted by the 15-nation council reflected the continuing uncertainty about the durability of France's military successes in Mali. A July 1 timetable for transferring peacekeeping authority to the United Nations is contingent on the further assessment of the threat posed to the peacekeepers by the armed militants. Today's resolution also authorizes French troops, operating under the command of the French government, to use military force to deter any threats against the U.N. peacekeepers.
France -- which currently has about 4,000 troops in Mali -- is hoping to scale back its presence by the end of the year, leaving a more permanent force of about 1,000 troops to carry on counterterrorism operations against remnants of the insurgency, and when needed, protect U.N. peacekeepers.
The French role has proven controversial within U.N. circles. While the U.N. is grateful that France will provide a last line of protection against the insurgents, it has expressed some misgivings about the risks of being too closely associated with a military counterterrorism campaign, fearing it would expose U.N. personnel in Mali and beyond to reprisal by extremist groups.
The U.N. resolution -- which was drafted by France -- condemns the Islamists' January 10 offensive towards southern Mali and welcomes the French decision to intervene to "stop the offensive of terrorist, extremist and armed groups." But it assigns no explicit combat role for the peacekeeping mission.
The mission -- which will be headed by a U.N. special representative -- will undertake several tasks, including securing strategic towns in northern Mali, promoting reconciliation between the Malian government, Tuareg separatists, and other groups in northern Mali that denounce any affiliation with extremist groups such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The U.N. will also help Mali -- which saw a military coup last year -- prepare the ground for a democratic transition, including "free, fair, transparent and inclusive" presidential and legislative elections, to be held respectively on July 7 and July 21.
The U.N. peacekeepers will be granted limited authority to protect civilians "under imminent threat of physical violence" if they are able and if such attacks occur in the area where the U.N. is present. They will also monitor human rights violations, including those committed by Malian government forces; help protect cultural and historical landmarks; use "all means necessary, within the limits of their capacities and areas of deployment" to help the Malians; and "as feasible and appropriate" hold human rights abusers accountable for their crimes.
The resolution hints -- but does not include explicit orders -- that the U.N. could use that authority to apprehend any future suspects wanted by the International Criminal Court.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
The United States has abandoned an initiative to authorize a U.N. peacekeeping mission to monitor and report on human rights abuses in Western Sahara in the face of intensive resistance from Morocco, which exercises military control over the former Spanish colony.
Last week, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, pushed for a broader mandate for the U.N. peacekeeping mission to monitor and report on rights abuses in Western Sahara and in Tindouf, Algeria, where more than 100,000 Sahrawi refugees live in a cluster of desert encampments.
The initial move -- which was applauded by human rights advocates -- encountered intense resistance from Morocco. Last week, Rabat protested the U.S. action by cancelling joint U.S.-Moroccan military exercises. The Moroccan king, Mohammed VI, also objected to the U.S. move in a letter to the White House. Morocco made clear that they would not allow the human rights monitors into Western Sahara.
The former Spanish possession is Africa's only remaining non-self-governing territory, with some 500,000 people in a sparsely populated desert expanse the size of Britain. Western Sahara was annexed by Morocco and Mauritania in 1975, when the Spanish withdrew. Mauritania ultimately abandoned its claim, and Morocco claimed their share of the territory in 1979. Morocco -- aided by France's diplomacy -- has fiercely and successfully resisted efforts by the Polisario Front, which enjoys diplomatic support from Algeria, to claim independence.
The Algerian-backed Polisario rebels fought Moroccan troops until 1991, when a U.N. brokered ceasefire called for a referendum that would allow Saharans the ability to vote on an independence referendum. But Morocco has never allowed such a vote to occur, and now insists that Western Sahara remain as an autonomous part of Morocco. Morocco, however, has been unable to convince any other government to recognize its claim to Western Sahara.
For years, the government in Rabay has successfully blocked a raft of initiative by states, including Britain, to grant the U.N. mission a role in monitoring human rights abuses.
Last week, Rice surprised her counterparts in the so-called Friends of Western Sahara group -- which includes the governments of the United States, France, Britain, Spain and Russia -- by indicating that Washington would press for authorization of U.N. human rights monitors in a Security Council resolution renewing the U.N. peacekeeping mission's mandate for another year. But the proposal faced resistance in the U.N. Security Council from Morocco, the council's lone Arab government, and other key powers like France, China, and Russia.
Earlier this week, the United States dropped the proposal. The council is now set to vote tomorrow on a resolution that would renew the peacekeeping mandate, but without human rights monitors. Instead, the resolution offers far softer language stressing the importance of human rights, and encouraging key players to promote human rights and develop "independent and credible measures" to ensure those rights are respected.
Senior Security Council diplomats said that the United States had underestimated the depth of Moroccan opposition. They also complained that the U.S. delegation had failed to adequately consult with its key partners, including Britain, France, and Spain, before pressing ahead with the initiative.
However, one U.N. diplomat defending the U.S. position countered: "Not only did the U.S. coordinate with its allies and partners in the same timeframe as they typically do, but the positions of some important members of the Friends Groups had softened considerably on human rights."
Ahmad Boukhari, the U.N. representative of the Polisario Front, said that a stronger U.S. push could have resulted in a tougher resolution, but that he considered it a "moral victory" that the United States even put the matter on the table. Asked why the initiative was dropped, he said, "There were some difficulties whose nature is unknown to me."
The Moroccan mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment.
Human rights advocates, meanwhile, expressed disappointment at the U.S. reversal. "The U.S. starting position was right on target, and had it prevailed would likely have contributed to an improvement of human rights conditions both in Western Sahara and in the refugee camps around Tindouf, in Algeria," said Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch. "Sadly the U.S. neither stuck to its guns or secured a compromise allowing enhanced human rights monitoring. Moroccan intransigence and the lack of vocal support by allies such as the UK did not help."
Britain, he noted, had previously supported the U.N. human rights mission in the past "and should have done so vocally again this year."
A spokeswoman for the British mission to the United Nations, Iona Thomas, said: "The United Kingdom strongly supports the upholding of human rights in Western Sahara. We welcome that the resolution, if adopted, will emphasize the importance of improving the human rights situation in Western Sahara and Tindouf camps."
The United States move followed a report earlier this month by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who urged "further international engagement" with the human rights situation in Western Sahara and Tindouf. "Given ongoing reports of human rights violations the need for independent, impartial, comprehensive and sustained monitoring of the human right situations in both Western Sahara and the camps becomes ever more pressing."
The U.N. Security Council has been pressing Morocco to accept greater scrutiny of its human rights record. Last year, Rabat agreed to allow periodic visits by independent U.N. human rights experts, and experts from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
"From the outset, our aim has been a renewal of MINURSO's mandate that is consistent with our goal of bringing about a peaceful, sustainable, and mutually agreed solution to the conflict whereby the human rights of all individuals are respected," said Payton Knopf, a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations. "As the secretary general underscored in his recent report on Western Sahara, human rights remains a serious issue that deserves the council's attention."
"The draft resolution contains additional language this year encouraging enhanced efforts and further progress on human rights," he added. "Human rights in Western Sahara and the Tindouf camps will continue to have the full attention of the U.N. Security Council and the United States, and we will be monitoring progress closely over the coming year."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
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."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
The influential International Peace Institute (IPI) has caught the attention of the non-profit news organization, ProPublica, which earlier this week published a report on the think tank's decision to open up an office in the capital Manama, at the expense of the Bahraini government. The think tank, the headquarters of which are housed in a 1st Ave. building, across the street from U.N. headquarters in New York, has long been linked to the United Nations. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon serves as an honorary chair of the organization.
At its heart, the ProPublica piece raises two key questions: Is it right for a think tank to lend its name to a country that is politically repressive and bars foreign human rights advocates and journalists from bearing witness? Is it a potential conflict of interest to have a senior U.N. official solicit money from a government whose fate he or she may be influencing at the United Nations?
The official in question is IPI's chief officer, Terje Roed Larsen, a former Norwegian diplomat who negotiated the Oslo Accords, serves as a $1 a-year advisor to Ban, and accompanies the secretary general on his most important Middle East travels, including recent trips to Tehran and Gaza.
The Security Council has also enlisted Larsen's services (according him the rank of undersecretary general) in implementing the 2004 Resolution 1559, which required Syrian forces withdrawal from Lebanon and the disarming of all armed groups in that country, including Hezbollah. In that job, Larsen produces biannual reports detailing violations by Syria and Hezbollah of the resolution.
But Larsen also has another day job which pays the bills. In 2005, Larsen was appointed executive director of IPI, which now pays him a $495,000 salary. That role placed Larsen in the position of simultaneously serving the United Nations in its impartial mission -- while soliciting funds for his non-profit from many governments, including the United States, Norway, and the European Union, that pursue their own more narrow national interests at the United Nations.
Under Larsen's leadership, the organization has done well, tapping into a stream of new funding from oil-rich Gulf states, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, two bitter rivals of Syria with ambitions for a larger political role in the Middle East and at the United Nations in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Prince Turki Al-Faisal -- a former Saudi intelligence chief and one-time Saudi ambassador to the United States -- is the chair of the IPI's international advisory council, whose members include a host of royals, including Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani, as well as senior officials from Russia, the European Union, and other Western capitals.
By most accounts, IPI has become the go-to non-profit for the U.N. international diplomatic community, offering a regular menu of public events featuring top U.N. officials, foreign dignitaries, academics, and journalists. (Full disclosure: I once participated as an unpaid panelist in a discussion on reporting of U.N. peacekeeping.)
But its outreach to governments has also grown more ambitious, and it has played a kind of fixer role for some of its wealthier donors.
For instance, Larsen helped arrange for a Saudi Arabian initiative to underwrite a U.N. counterterrorism center. IPI also helped the government of Qatar develop a plan for the establishment of a program -- called HOPEFOR -- "to improve the use of military assets in disaster relief" and "help build a "global network of civilian and military practitioners."
In Bahrain, Larsen's dual-role as U.N. official and non-profit impresario has contributed to some confusion.
While the U.N. has played a rather timid role in pressing Bahrain to respect free expression, Ban has issued statements scolding the monarchy for cracking down violently on dissent and urging the government to lift protest restrictions. ProPublica cited a Bahrain press account from 2011 indicating that Larsen had extolled the climate of "freedom, democracy and institutional development."
In a telephone interview with Turtle Bay from Jakarta, Indonesia, Larsen said that his views had been mischaracterized by the Bahraini press and that he intentionally avoided interviews with reporters on his trips there. He said the articles do not cite actual quotes of his remarks.
Larsen said that Bahrain will serve as the institution's regional hub, and that its main initial focus will be the humanitarian crisis in Syria. His initial intention, he said, was to base the office in Damascus but that conditions were too violent to allow it. "We are an institute which is studying regional conflicts and we are in countries where there are conflicts," he said. "We don't go to Switzerland or Sweden because there are no violent conflicts."
Larsen dismissed the possibility that his dual roles might pose a conflict of interest, noting that his work for the U.N. Security Council was focused on "narrow events in Lebanon," and that he plays no mediation role for the U.N. secretary general that could potentially give rise to a conflict.
"This is not an issue," he said. "It has nothing to do with Bahrain. IPI is focusing on the humanitarian situation in Syria, the displaced and the refugees in neighboring countries."
Larsen's likened his venture into Bahrain as part of wider migration by Western think tanks and universities into the Persian Gulf. Blue-chip outfits like the Brookings Institution and Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, have set up satellite operations in nearby Qatar.
The intellectual capital of the Middle East, it seems, is being erected with funding from oil rich sheikdoms in the heart of the Persian Gulf. Bahrain now will become a member of that club, while burnishing its reputation as host to international humanitarians.
That, according to human rights advocates, should give outside institutions like IPI grounds for pause. "Bahraini authorities can't cover up their terrible human rights record by paying for brand name institutions to set up shop there," said Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch . "Any independent think tank choosing Bahrain as a home should be aware that free exchange of ideas is almost impossible when many journalists or human rights advocates are barred from even entering the country."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
It's not exactly the Cold War.
But U.S.-Russia relations have been getting pretty chilly in the U.N. Security Council lately.
On Tuesday, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin, traded verbal blows over a stalled U.S. initiative to endorse a recent peace deal between Sudan and South Sudan.
The big power quarrel played out in a procedural skirmish over how the 15-nation council should be used to promote political reconciliation between the two Sudans, which have been locked in their own highly contentious squabbles over the nature of their relationship in the wake of South Sudan's independence in 2011.
Rice accused Churkin of trying to thwart the council's efforts to adopt a U.S.-drafted statement pressuring both Sudans to implement of set of obligations they have undertaken on everything from security arrangements to oil exports and trade, and condemning clashes between Sudanese and South Sudanese forces, including Khartoum’s aerial bombardment of towns in the south. Churkin fired back that Rice was "not reasonable" and her decision to divulge the contents of confidential negotiations was "rather bizarre."
The dispute reflected the deepening strains between the United States and Russia on a range of issues, including Syria, where the two powers have been stalemated, and Sudan, where Moscow has repeatedly stymied American efforts to press Khartoum. But it also highlighted the testy tenor of relations between Churkin and Rice, which some colleagues have likened to emotional exchanges between high-school kids.
For weeks, Rice had been struggling to secure agreement on a U.N. Security Council presidential statement that would recognize recent progress between the former civil war rivals in negotiations touching on everything from the demarcation of the border to control of Sudanese oil, which is mostly pumped in landlocked South Sudan, but transported, refined, and exported through Sudan.
Rice had crafted the draft in a way that could maximize pressure on Khartoum to withdraw its security forces from the disputed territory of Abyei, to provide access for U.N. humanitarian workers seeking to distribute humanitarian assistance in the conflict zones of South Kordofan and Blue Nile state. But it also deplored the presence of South Sudanese national police in Abyei, and urged both sides to refrain from hostilities.
Moscow had initially blocked the U.S. initiative on the grounds that it was too tough on Khartoum, but not tough enough on South Sudan. But on Friday of last week, Russia had reached agreement in principle with Rice to support the American measure.
The deal, however, was never concluded. Over the weekend, Sudan and South Sudan reached agreement on a deal setting the stage for the establishment of a demilitarized zone between the two countries and an oil pact that will allow for the resumption of oil exports for the first time since January 2012, when South Sudan halted production to protest what they believed were excessive transport fees charged by the Sudanese government.
Rice told reporters that she had intended to update the statement to reflect the latest agreement, but that Churkin abruptly introduced his own press statement welcoming the latest agreement and stripping out any language criticizing Khartoum's shortcomings on other fronts. Rice suggested that Russia, which has more limited interests in the Sudans than the United States, is performing the role of diplomatic spoiler in the council.
"We were close to agreement on that, and we were ready to update it to take account of recent events," Rice told reporters. "Unfortunately, perhaps in the interest of derailing such a PRST [Presidential statement], the Russian federation, which does not typically utilize the pen on South Sudan or Sudan, tabled a draft press statement, which only discussed a very narrow aspect of the substance of the larger ... statement and excluded language on the two areas, excluded mention of the cross border incidents, including aerial bombardment."
Churkin insisted that his intentions were pure, and that he was merely seeking to send a swift message of support to the Sudanese parties.
"Ambassador Rice chose to spill out to the media some confidential conversations we had today and actually did it in a rather bizarre way, from what I hear,' he told reporters. "I think the reaction of the U.S. delegation was not reasonable. And as a result of that we were not able to have any agreed reaction from the council today."
"This was not a constructive way to deal with the work in the Security Council," he added. "Trying to find all sorts of ulterior motives and come up with various outlandish accusations is not the best way to deal with your partners in the Security Council. I know it's not a good way to deal with the Russian delegation."
Some U.N. diplomats believe that Churkin is actually trying to provoke his American counterpart and that his tough line reflects an increasingly combative foreign policy approach being pursued by Russian President Vladimir Putin. "Russia is taking on an increasingly nationalistic foreign policy and Churkin's instructions reflect that," said one council diplomat.
But others fault the Americans for refusing to compromise with Russia in order to maintain pressure on Sudan and South Sudan to comply with their commitments. They say Rice's insistence on tough denunciations of Khartoum, while merited, have resulted in the council's inability to weigh in on many key aspects of the crisis since May 2012, when the council last threatened sanctions against the two sides if they failed to live up to their commitments. The United States "has been using a bazooka when they should stick with a pistol," said one U.N. insider. "Everyone knows how bad [Sudanese President Omar] Bashir is, but does it need to be put in every statement?"
A U.S. official countered that the U.S. has been even handed. "The United States is focused on resolving critical issues that risk another war between Sudan and South Sudan and have a huge human cost," said Payton Knopf, a spokesman for Rice, noting that hundreds of thousands of displaced Sudanese civilians are "enduring a humanitarian crisis of immense proportions. We believe the Security Council should hold the parties accountable, as appropriate for fulfilling their obligations. When Khartoum or Juba is cuplable, we think the council needs to apply pressure, as needed."
Russia, meanwhile, has been nursing its own grievances toward the government in Juba since 2011, when the South Sudanese authorities detained a Russian helicopter crew. Moscow unsuccessfully sought U.S. support for a statement criticizing the South's action. Then, to make matters worse, last year, South Sudanese army forces shot down a U.N. helicopter piloted by a 4-man Russian crew, who were all killed in the incident. In that instance, the U.S. supported a council statement deploring the shooting, and demanding that those responsible for the shooting be held accountable.
More recently, Russia accused the United States of blocking a Security Council statement condemning a terror bombing near the Russian embassy in Damascus.
"We believe these are double standards," Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said last month. "And we see in it a very dangerous tendency by our American colleagues to depart from the fundamental principle of unconditional condemnation of any terrorist act, a principle which secures the unity of the international community in the fight against terrorism," he said.
A spokeswoman for Rice, Erin Pelton, countered that assessment, saying that the United States was willing to support the Russian initiative if it included a reference to President Bashar al-Assad's government's "brutal attacks against the Syrian people. If predictably, Russia rejected the U.S. suggested language as "totally unacceptable" and withdrew its draft statement."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
For well over a year now, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has been bombarding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with undiplomatic statements, lending the impression that his sympathies lie with those seeking his demise.
So, why in the world would an armed opposition group in Syria seize a group of U.N. observers in the Golan Heights monitoring a nearly 40-year truce between Israel and Syria and using them as a bargaining chip in their fight against Assad?
In a statement released today, the "media office" of the obscure rebel Brigade Shuhada Yarmouk, said they had acted against the U.N. because they were providing humanitarian aid to "the criminal regime troops" operating in the area. "We condemn this low act," the statement said. "Why [isn't] humanitarian aid delivered to the unarmed citizens instead of the criminal groups?" The group also posted a YouTube video showing the insurgents in front of large white truck with a U.N. insignia, vowing to hold the U.N. peacekeepers as hostages until Syrian government forces withdrew from contest.
The group's action was denounced by the Free Syrian Army's political and media coordinator, Louay al-Mokdad. "We are not responsible for this, and we are in communication with all our groups to figure out who this group is and to try to solve it as soon as we can," Mokdad said, according to the Washington Post. "This is not the right action to take. We should protect the U.N. soldiers." U.N. officials said they suspect the captors are comprised primarily of armed Palestinian refugees loosely allied with the Syrian insurgency.
It was impossible to verify the armed abductors' claims and the U.N. provided scant public detail on what had been unfolding in the area in the days and weeks leading up to today's abduction of about 20 armed U.N. blue helmets from the Philippines.
Diplomatic sources say that U.N.-Arab League Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's Damascus-based deputy, Mokhtar Lamani,is trying to negotiate their release through his rebel contacts in Syria.
The U.N.'s humanitarian operations in Syria have come under scrutiny in recent months as aid agencies have faulted them for channeling a disproportionate amount of aid to government-controlled areas, leaving rebel-controlled territory wanting.
The U.N.'s Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has countered that any limitation on their assistance to rebel-held areas was the result of fighting or the Syrian government's refusal to allow aid workers access to the region.
"Our aid," said Farhan Haq, a spokesman for the U.N. secretary general, "goes basically to civilians; it doesn't go to fighting forces." Haq added that the abducted U.N. peacekeepers were charged with monitoring a cease-fire along a demilitarized zone separating Syrian and Israeli forces, not distributing humanitarian aid.
But an official confirmed to Turtle Bay that the U.N. mission in the Golan had provided some medical treatment to both government forces and insurgents who were in danger of dying from their wounds.
The U.N. Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, was established in 1974 to monitor a demilitarized zone on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Over the years, it has attracted little international attention.
But the Syrian civil war has increased tensions along the line of separation, raising concern that the conflict could spill into Israel. A month ago, a U.N. advisor went missing in the Golan Heights, and he has not yet been released. The U.N. also reported today that nearby fighting between rebels and the Syrian army over the weekend forced U.N. observers to evacuate an observation post, which was damaged during the fight.
Officials in New York said that the U.N. observers have faced increasing harassment in recent months from insurgents operating in the region.
The troubles began last year when Sunni residents of the town of Jabata and another nearby village took up arms against Syrian loyalists, according to a U.N. official.
Since then, a motley coalition of Syrian and foreign fighters -- including members of the Free Syrian Army, the Al Nusra Front, and armed Palestinians -- have come to their aid. "The opposition forces have taken advantage of the separation zone," said an official. "They have used it as a kind of sanctuary."
In New York, a U.N. spokesman, Eduardo del Buey, confirmed that "approximately 30 armed fighters stopped and detained a group of around 20 peacekeepers." He said that the U.N. observer force in the Golan Heights "is dispatching a team to assess the situation and attempt a resolution."
Del Buey said that the observers were carrying out a regular supply mission when they were stopped near an U.N. observation post near the town of Al Jamlah, which had been the site of heavy fighting between the Syrian government and rebels.
If there was any positive to take away from today's action, it's that it succeeded in uniting the 15-nation Security Council around a crisis that has more often exposed deep rifts between the key powers. Led by Russia, the U.N. Security Council issued a statement condemning the abduction of U.N. peacekeepers on the Golan Heights, and demanding their "unconditional and immediate" release.
Following the vote, Russia's U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin, who is serving as Security Council president this month, condemned the armed hostage takers.
"This particular case is particularly unacceptable and bizarre in that UNDOF are unarmed and they have nothing to do with the situation in Syria -- they're on a completely different mission," Churkin said. "It seems that lately some people are trying very hard to extend the geography of the Syrian conflict. Somebody is trying very hard to blow this conflict up."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
A U.N. subcommittee dealing with economic and social matters selected Sudan to chair a special session in Geneva in July on the promotion of humanitarian assistance, prompting European and other Western governments to request the decision be reversed and that Sudan be given a less controversial assignment, diplomats told Turtle Bay.
Nestor Osorio, the president of the U.N. Economic and Social Council, was expected to announce Sudan's selection for the post tomorrow at a meeting at U.N. headquarters. But European governments requested that a decision be postponed as government scrambled to convince Sudan to abandon its quest for the job. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., spoke with Osorio this week to express Washington's concerns about the selection of Sudan.
Western powers are concerned that appointment of Sudan would set the stage for another embarrassing U.N. spectacle in which a country routinely denounced for denying access to humanitarian aid workers is given the job of advocating for their interests.
The move comes against a background of troubled relations between Khartoum and humanitarian aid workers. In March, 2009, one day after the International Criminal Court accused Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir of committing genocide, his government expelled 13 international relief agencies from Darfur. Sudan has also prevented international aid workers into the restive Sudanese regions of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states, where conflict has displaced nearly 700,000 people and forced more than 200,000 to flee to Ethiopia and South Sudan.
Earlier this week, Rice rebuked Sudan in a Security Council session for its "appalling and unacceptable" refusal to grant international aid workers access to needy Sudanese civilians, particularly in areas under the control of its armed rivals from the northern branch of Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLM-N).
"The Government of Sudan has refused for now a year and a half to permit the safe and unhindered provision of international humanitarian assistance to address the acute humanitarian emergency in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states, particularly the SPLM-North controlled areas, which is largely of Khartoum's making," Rice told the 15-nation council in the Tuesday debate on the protection of civilians.
It is not the first time that Sudan has competed for a controversial post at the United Nations. The United States and other Western powers successfully derailed a previous Sudanese campaign to join the U.N. Security Council as one of its 10 non-permanent members. Last August, Sudan dropped a bid to serve as a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, following criticism from human rights organization and governments who claimed that a government whose leader was wanted by the International Criminal Court on genocide charges had no place in the U.N.'s chief human rights body.
But Sudan has not given up and the U.N.'s African bloc continues to put forward the Sudanese government as a candidate for choice U.N. posts, despite questions about fitness for the job. The real culprit 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 deserved or not -- and prevents messy elections. Sudan, which has previously been blocked from serving on the U.N. Security Council, has been waiting in line a long time for a choice committee appointment. And African states appear willing to grant them that chance, even if it may prove embarrassing.
In the latest episode, Albania, Austria, Pakistan, and Sudan were appointed vice presidents of an organizing committee responsible for presiding over the Economic and Social Council's annual session, which runs from July 1-26.
The ECOSOC meeting, which will take place in Geneva, will be broken up into five segments, including a high-level meeting hosted by Osorio, a meeting on how the U.N. coordinates its global activities, as well as a discussion on humanitarian aid. Sudan has aggressively pursued the humanitarian aid post. Diplomats say that Osorio and the other vice presidents are trying to convince Sudan to accept another, less controversial assignment.
"Clearly Sudan is trying to score points in the humanitarian field to try to show the world it cares about this when we know on the ground that their action runs contrary to that," said one U.N.-based diplomat. "Sudan is going to get something but we trust that there will be enough wisdom" to identify a less controversial assignment for Khartoum.
"Given all the criticisms of their humanitarian record why would they put such a visible target on their back?" asked another U.N. diplomat.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Have U.S. conservatives really lost the war on the International Criminal Court?
A decade ago, President George W. Bush's U.N. envoy, John Negroponte, threatened to shut down U.N. peacekeeping missions from Bosnia to Guatemala if the U.N. Security Council failed to immunize American peacekeepers from prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Bush administration threatened to cut aid to America's military allies if they failed to sign pacts -- known as Article 98 Agreements -- vowing never to surrender a U.S. citizen to the Hague-based court. John Bolton, the Republicans' fiercest foe of the court, declared the day he reversed the Clinton administration's decision to sign the treaty establishing the court his happiest. "I felt like a kid on Christmas day," he wrote in his memoir. The very future of the international tribunal appeared to be at risk.
Today, the Security Council routinely passes resolutions expanding the scope of the international court and few pay it any notice. Last year, the Security Council cited the ICC in resolutions nine times, including in a December resolution -- 2085 -- that requires peacekeepers in Mali to support "national and international efforts, including those of the International Criminal Court, to bring to justice perpetrators of serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law."
It's not that conservatives are ready to embrace the ICC. Fears that the court may one day turn its sites on America's allies in Jerusalem have been reawakened by the Palestinian Authority's warnings that it may file a complaint with the tribunal over Israel's settlement policies. But conservatives have shown considerably less interest in the court's other investigations, particularly in Africa.
Last month, ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda opened a formal investigation into alleged crimes in Mali, citing "deeds of brutality and destruction" by armed insurgents who seized control of several towns in northern Mali early last year. The prosecutor recently put Malian government troops on notice that they could potentially face prosecution for rights abuses too. The court has also been stepping up pressure on the Libyan government to surrender slain Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi's former intelligence chief, Abdullah Senussi.
France's U.N. envoy Gérard Araud told Turtle Bay that the "routine" references to the global court constitute "recognition of the ICC as a key actor" on the international stage, one that is helping to end "impunity for the perpetrators of the worst atrocities." Given the court's early struggles, the broad acceptance of the tribunal, even by its big-power critics, is nothing short of "amazing," he said.
Still, it may be premature to declare victory for the ICC.
The court has opened 18 cases and jailed six people, including the former president of Ivory Coast, but it has so far succeeded in convicting only one war criminal: Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga, who was sentenced last summer to 14 years in prison for recruiting child soldiers. Three of the Security Council's veto-wielding members -- China, Russia, and the United States -- have never joined the tribunal, fearing that it could potentially subject their nationals or those of their allies to prosecution by a court beyond their control. The council's two most important initiatives in support of the court -- the authorization of prosecutions of Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir and of Qaddafi and his inner circle -- have gone nowhere. And the council has done little to use its influence and power to compel the Sudanese or the Libyans to cooperate with the court.
"We are seeing increasing evidence that the ICC is -- and is seen as -- a permanent fixture in the international firmament," said James Goldston, a former coordinator of ICC prosecutions who now serves as executive director of the Open Society's Justice Initiative. "Too often, however, states' support for the ICC has been uneven -- strong when Security Council referral to the ICC is a way for the council to show resolve, weak when the ICC needs political backing to do its work."
The council's embrace of the ICC as a political cudgel has evolved against a backdrop of mounting anxiety -- and, in some cases, outright hostility -- toward the court in Africa, where most of the tribunal's prosecutions have played out. In Kenya, the country's national assembly passed a motion in 2010 urging the government to withdraw from the treaty body establishing the ICC. The move followed the prosecutor's announcement that the court would pursue charges against six Kenyans, including a presidential candidate, Uhuru Kenyatta, for crimes against humanity. These sentiments have fueled charges that the court has become an instrument of big-power bullying, not a forum for justice. "The structural issues that lead many to suggest double standards are real," Goldston said. The fact that three powers are not parties to the ICC, and have the power to refer cases, is an "inherent problem." At the same time, he added, "I think the current moment is a period in which the court is getting more traction."
In Washington, the court faces far fewer of the fiery broadsides and political threats that marked the conservative campaign to gut it in its infancy. "It's clear that things have softened since" the early years of the Bush administration," said Kenneth Anderson, a professor at American University's College of Law, noting that many American conservatives have "lost interest" in the tribunal. As long as the ICC prosecutor does not try to prosecute U.S. and Israel officials -- the "last true red lines" -- it will likely remain that way, he said. "The United States has made its peace on both sides of the political aisle with the existence of the International Criminal Court and with the functioning of the ICC as long as it doesn't get too close to the United States," Anderson added.
In some ways, the the Security Council's routine references to the global court reflect the degree to which it has become an accepted institution. In the end, even President Bush made his peace with the court, standing aside in March 2005, when the Security Council adopted a resolution ordering an investigation into massive crimes by Sudanese authorities in Darfur, Sudan.
The Obama administration has shown even greater sympathy for the court, but its backing has been limited and discrete, primarily coming in the form of allowing references to the ICC in Security Council resolutions and voting in favor of the 2011 resolution opening the prosecution of Qaddafi and his associates. The White House's commitment has been selective, according to observers.
"I think the United States is interested in constant engagement with the ICC if it serves their purpose. It's very ad hoc," said Christian Wenaweser, Liechtenstein's U.N. ambassador and the former president of the ICC's assembly of states parties. "They supported a Libya referral [when Qaddafi was in power] but they did not support any statements that would require the Libyans to cooperate with the ICC. They went with the approach of letting the Libyans do it themselves."
Wenaweser said he agrees that the increased ICC-related activity at the Security Council indicates that the organization is becoming "part of the mainstream political discussion," but he added that it's harder to make the argument that it reflects "stronger political acceptance or support by the Security Council."
Brett Schaefer, a U.N. expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, agrees. He said that the Obama administration's cautious approach to the court has given conservatives little cause for alarm.
"There was a lot of concern when the Obama administration came into office that it would implement a significant shift in U.S. policy towards the court," Schaefer said. "But instead, the shift has been quite moderate." The United States, he said, has cooperated in limited circumstances with the ICC prosecutor, increased rhetorical backing for the court, and permitted Security Council references to the court that don't cross American red lines.
"For the most part the policy's settled. It's because of that that the concerns conservatives had in 2008 and 2009 have been lessened," Schaefer said. But if ICC investigations clash with American interests in places like Afghanistan or the Middle East, he added, it could lead to a revival of U.S. opposition -- not only from conservatives, but also from Democratic lawmakers and the wider public.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has hit an impasse in his efforts to promote a Syrian political transition that would ultimately lead to President Bashar al-Assad yielding power to a caretaker national unity government. But it hasn't stopped him from trying. In a closed door session of the Security Council this week, Brahimi introduced a six point plan to try to break the political impasse. He expressed hope that his plan could inform a Security Council peace initiative on Syria. "I think that public opinion the world over is now looking up to the Security Council to take a determined, strong lead," he told the council in a confidential briefing. A copy of Brahimi's remarks was posted this evening by Alhurra's U.N. reporter, Nabil Abi Saab. Here's Brahimi's six point plan:
1. Syria's independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity must be preserved.
2. A recognition that ultimate objective is for Syrians to have a full say in the way they are governed.
3. The formation of a transition government with "full executive powers." Brahimi says he believes that means President Bashar al Assad "would have no role in the transition."
4. Both sides would need to be represented by broad group of opposition leaders and strong military-civilian delegation from the Syrian government.
5. Negotiations should occur outside of Syria, and conform with a timetable setting out a speedy path towards elections, constitutional reform, and a referendum. He raised the prospect of moving from a presidential system of government to a parliamentarian system.
6. He urged the U.N. Security Council to unequivocally express support for the right of each citizen in Syria "to enjoy full equality before the law irrespective of gender, religion, language or ethnicity."
After presenting his plan to the Security Council on Tuesday, Brahimi met with the five permanent members of the council at a dinner hosted by Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, at her official residence at the Waldorf Astoria. Diplomats said that the council's big powers expressed support for Brahimi's efforts but were unable to endorse his plan. Vitaly Churkin, Russia's U.N. ambassador, made it clear that any political settlement would have to be negotiated with President Assad, not imposed by the Security Council. There are no immediate plans for the council's key powers to resume discussions on Brahimi's plan.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
With the Syrian uprising and civil war approaching its second year, Turtle Bay decided to have a look at some of the underlying U.N. numbers -- some familiar and some more obscure -- that tell the toll of the country's suffering.
As United States and other wealthy governments converged on Kuwait for an international donor conference on Syria, Valerie Amos, the U.N.'s emergency relief coordinator, said the reality of the situation is potentially worse than we know, especially in the face of a bitterly cold winter. U.N. officials say it's hard to quantify the suffering, particularly given the Syrian government's refusal to let U.N. relief workers deliver assistance to rebel-controlled areas from neighboring Turkey. But Amos and other U.N. officials have detailed some of the lesser-known facts and figures to give a sense of the impact the crisis is having on ordinary Syrians, and the costs of not responding.
The scale of the suffering has generated calls from the United Nations for a massive humanitarian response, including appeals for $519 million in assistance for distressed Syrians inside their own country, and another $1 billion for Syrian refugees that have fled the country's violence.
In recent days, the U.N. and international advocacy groups cited figures suggesting that the international community has been unwilling to pay the price for responding to the need. A coalition of non-governmental organizations singled out six countries -- Brazil, Japan, China, South Korea, Russia, and Mexico -- that together account for a quarter of the world's GDP, but which have provided little or no funding. "Donors have not stepped up to their responsibilities in this past period," said John Ging, the U.N. humanitarian relief agencies director of operations.
But U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in Kuwait today that the U.N. surpassed its target with more than $1.5 billion in pledges, easily meeting its funding appeals. The key donors include:
But government pledges at donor conferences don't always result in money spent.
U.N. officials said that the Kuwait conference was a promising start. "Money has been pledged, but that is just the start," Amos said after the conference. "We now have to do all we can to turn that into action on the ground -- but the environment in which we work is extremely challenging."
Indeed, it is. On Tuesday, the French aid agency, Medecins Sans Frontiers, protested that international assistance was primarily being delivered to civilians in government-controlled areas.
Ging challenged that assessment, saying that at least 48 percent of international assistance was being delivered by the Syrian Red Crescent and a handful of other international relief organizations to opposition areas.
But he acknowledged that the U.N. has gained little access to rebel-controlled territory in the north, primarily as a result of the Syrian government's refusal to permit them access through the Turkish border. Ging said the U.N. was relying on the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to verify whether money channeled through the Syrian Red Crescent is going to those in need, regardless of political affiliation.
But he said the U.N. is also not naïve about the risks of assistance being diverted to pro-government communities and that the organization is working to expand the presence of international relief agencies in Syria.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi issued an impassioned appeal to U.N. Security Council members, particularly the United States and Russia, to put aside their differences and to take firmer action to help stop the bleeding in Syria.
The country, he warned, is on the verge of disintegrating and the Syrian combatants were undercutting prospects for any hope of a diplomatic settlement.
"I'm sorry if I sound like an old broken record," Brahimi told the council, according to notes of his briefing obtained by Turtle Bay. "The country is breaking up before everyone's eyes."
Brahimi told the council that the effort to persuade the warring factions to enter political talks had run aground, with the Syrian government and the armed opposition unwilling to talk to one another. Key regional powers, meanwhile, had picked sides in the conflict, transforming Syria into a "playground for competing forces."
The veteran U.N. trouble-shooter said the best hope for reversing the situation's worsening trend lies with the Security Council, which has remained paralyzed by a big power split between Russia and China on one side, who oppose punishing Bashar al-Assad's government for its brutality, and Western and Arab powers on the other, who favor sanctioning Syria.
"The Security Council simply cannot continue to say we are in disagreement, therefore let us wait for better times," Brahimi told reporters after the meeting, adding that he would continue to discuss Syria at a dinner tonight with the council's five major powers. "I think they have to grapple with this problem now."
Behind closed doors, Brahimi said the Syrian regime "is as repressive as ever, if not more," but that the armed opposition was also believed to have committed "equally atrocious crimes." He said international investigations are needed to get to the bottom of some of the country's worst human rights calamities, including this week's massacre of at least 65 people in Aleppo.
Brahimi said that he would continue to press the council's permanent members, including the United States and Russia, at a private dinner tonight to reach agreement on a common approach to Syria.
He said he would continue to press for his plan for the establishment of a transitional government with "full executive powers."
Brahimi told reporters that it was time to "lift the ambiguity" about the meaning of that phrase, though he did not say publicly exactly what that would mean for Assad. Behind closed doors, however, he told council diplomats that "it clearly means that Assad should have no role in the transition.... Assad's legitimacy has been irreparably damaged."
After the meeting, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said that Washington "expressed strong support" for Brahimi's peace efforts and that it will continue to engage in talks with Brahimi and other key powers. But, she said, "I don't have any promises of any big breakthroughs."
Brahimi, meanwhile, confronted persistent rumors, published in the Arab press, that he was planning to resign from his job.
"I'm not a quitter, and the United Nations has no choice but to remain engaged with this problem" he told reporters. "The moment I feel that I am totally useless I will not stay one minute more."
"I didn't want this job," he admitted, suggesting that perhaps he taken it on "stupidly." "I felt a sense of duty," said Brahimi.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
U.N.-Arab League Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is expected to present the U.N. Security Council tomorrow with a darkly pessimistic assessment of peace prospects in Syria, where political repression and civil war have left more 60,000 people dead, according to U.N. estimates, and threatened to plunge the Middle East into a wider sectarian conflict, according to U.N. diplomats and officials.
Since his appointment last August, Brahimi has promoted a plan for a negotiated settlement between the Syrian government and the armed opposition that would lead to the establishment of a transitional government headed by opposition leaders and members of Assad's security establishment. Brahimi has invested his hopes and prestige on brokering a deal between the United States and Russia to compel the warring parties to accept peace.
But Syrian President Bashar al-Assad earlier this month rebuffed Brahimi's plan in a public address to Syrians, denouncing the armed oppositions as "terrorists" and "criminals" that needed to be confronted with arms. "They are the enemies of God, and they will go to hell," said Assad. The armed opposition has also made it clear it is not willing to negotiate as long as Assad is in power. And talks between the United States and Russia, meanwhile, are stalled over the fate of Assad.
Brahimi was "quite negative" about the prospect for a negotiated settlement in discussions with Security Council diplomats during the past week. He told them that he has no intention of outlining a specific new plan to break the current impasse, according to a council diplomat.
"The guy is stuck; he has no good news," added a senior U.N. colleague. "Everything he has tried to do is not working."
The U.N. assessment of the fighting has evolved since early December, when senior U.N. officials believed that Assad's regime was on the verge of collapse. Today, the balance of power has returned to a "military stalemate," according to a senior U.N. official.
The official said that Brahimi continues to believe that a negotiated political settlement presents the greatest hope of averting a chaotic collapse of Syria's institutions. And he will continue to promote it. But he "doesn't hide the fact" that the two sides are equally committed to fighting it out.
"The picture therefore is very grim," the official said.
Brahimi remains committed to pressing the U.N. Security Council's key powers, principally the United States and Russia, to coalesce behind a common position. Ironically, the official said, Brahimi believes that the two governments' assessments of the crisis are not that far apart, but it has been difficult to bridge the gap.
Moscow has expressed fresh doubts about Assad's prospects for survival, but it has shown little willingness to join the United States and other Western powers in ratcheting up pressure in the U.N. Security Council on Assad to step aside.
In an interview this weekend with CNN's Fareed Zakaria, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that Assad may have made "a fatal mistake" by failing to move earlier to reach a political deal with the "moderate opposition" in Syria. "I think that with every day, with every week, with every month, the chances of him surviving are becoming less and less," said Medvedev.
On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov -- generally a more reliable barometer of the Russian policy -- insisted that Moscow, Damascus's longstanding military ally, was "never enchanted with this regime. And we never supported it," he told reporters. "And all of our actions, aimed at helping to fulfill the Geneva agreement to form the transitional body, only confirm that we want the situation to stabilize, and the creation of the conditions that Syrians can themselves decide their fate -- of their own people, their own state, their own leadership."
Western diplomats said that while they welcome Lavrov's remarks they say Russian officials have previously distanced themselves from their long-time ally only to come to his defense in the U.N. Security Council, where Moscow has blocked three attempts by the West to threaten to punish Assad.
"We noticed the [Russian] comments and we're pleased to see them," said a council diplomat. "But it's not something we haven't seen before. If [President Vladimir] Putin had said them we'd be reacting quite differently."
"Our assessment at this point in time is pretty sobering: there has been no movement by Assad, nor by the Russians," added a Western diplomat. "They have not come forward with anything to support Brahimi."
In a sign of big power discord at the United Nations, the permanent five members of the Security Council will hold off on plans to meet Brahimi until after he has briefed the council. (A dinner has been scheduled for Tuesday night.) Diplomats said that the big five would likely have met before if there was any hope of forging a common position.
France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said it was not enough to leave it to the Syrians to resolve the crisis on their own. At a Paris conference of the Syrian National Coalition, Fabius said that the international community must bolster the opposition's moderate forces lest Islamic extremists take charge in Syria.
"We must give the Syrian opposition the means to support its people, urgently and tangibly," he said. "Because let's be clear: faced with the collapse of a state and a society, there is a risk of extremist groups gaining ground. We cannot let a revolt, which began as a peaceful and democratic protest, break down into a clash of militias. It is in the interests of the Syrian people and all of us."
Back at the U.N., there was growing despair about the chances of a peaceful settlement.
"We are extremely pessimistic of any chance of any political settlement," said another Security Council diplomat. "This is a conflict which will be resolved over the very long term. We know both sides have decided to fight to the death."
"Brahimi has good intentions but its been very clear from the beginning that his mission was impossible," the official said. "Not sure he will last very long in his current position, not because he will be kicked out but simply because he will draw the conclusion that it's a desperate situation."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
An independent U.N. human rights researcher this morning announced the opening of an investigation into the use of drone attacks and other targeted assassinations by the United States and other governments.
Ben Emmerson, the U.N. special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, told reporters in London this morning that the "exponential" rise in American drones strikes posed a "real challenge to the framework of international law," according to a statement issued by his office. Emmerson said there was a need to develop a legal framework to regulate the use of drones, and ensure "accountability" for their misuse.
"The plain fact is that this technology is here to stay," he said. "It is therefore imperative that appropriate legal and operational structures are urgently put in place to regulate its use in a manner that complies with the requirement of international law.
The decision to open a drone investigation drew praise from critics of America's drone policies. "We welcome this investigation in the hopes that global pressure will bring the U.S. back into line with international law requirements that strictly limit the use of lethal force," said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project. "To date, there has been an abysmal lack of transparency and no accountability for the U.S. government's ever-expanding targeted killing program."
The Obama administration has defended its use of drones as a more humane alternative to military combat. John Brennan, the White House advisor on counterterrorism and the president's new nominee to lead the CIA, defended the U.S. program as "ethical and just," saying that the targeted nature of the strikes was more humane than traditional military strikes, lessening the prospects that civilians are killed.
Emmerson challenged what he characterized as Brennan's contention that the United States and its allies are engaged in a global war against a stateless enemy which requires the prosecution of war across international borders. Emmerson said that "central objective" of his inquiry is to "look at evidence that drone strikes and other forms of remote targeted killings have caused disproportionate civilian casualties in some instances, and to make recommendations concerning the duty of states to conduct throughout independent and impartial investigations into such allegations, with a view to securing accountability..."
Emmerson said that he has assembled a team of international lawyers and experts, including British lawyer Sir Geoffrey Nice and New York University professor Sarah Knuckey, to help identify cases in which targeted killings may have resulted in civilian casualties. He said they would focus on 25 case studies in Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, to see whether there is a case worthy of prosecution. He said he would present his findings in October.
Emmerson is an independent U.N. rights expert, and his investigation is not sanctioned by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon or the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay. But his association with the United Nations is likely to carry greater political weight than those of independent administration critics.
Emmerson first announced plans to look into the American drone program in October, on the eve of U.S. presidential elections, citing frustration with both candidates' positions on drones."The Obama administration continues to formally adopt the position that it will neither confirm nor deny the existence of the drone program," he said at the time. "In reality, the administration is holding its finger in the dam of public accountability," he said according to a prepared copy of the speech.
Emmerson said today that the investigation emerged as the result of a request last June from China, Pakistan, and Russia, to investigate the use of drones in counterterrorism operations.
"The inquiry that I am launching today is a direct response to the requests made to me by states at the human rights council last June, as well as to the increasing international concern surrounding the issue of remote targeted killing through the use of UAV's [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles]," he said. "The exponential rise in the use of drone technology in a variety of military and non-military contexts represents a real challenge to the framework of established international law."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United States, quietly floated the idea of organizing a U.N. peacekeeping force to help stabilize Mali after France puts down the Islamist insurgency there.
Rice made the remarks in a closed-door session of the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday evening, though she noted that the Obama administration had not yet officially decided to back a force of blue helmets. But she said that the existing plan to send an African-led force to the country to train the Malian army to retake control of northern Mali from the Islamists had been overtaken by the French intervention.
Rice said that the original U.N. plan -- which envisioned the Malian army as the "tip of the spear" in a military offensive against the Islamists -- is no longer viable, according to an official present at the meeting. She said the mission would likely shift from a combat mission to a stabilization mission, requiring a long-term strategy to hold territory and build up local institutions. French combat forces are unlikely to remain in Mali to do that job. "We need to be open to a blue-helmeted operation," she said, according to another official at the meeting.
The French action has sent U.N. diplomats and military planners back to drawing board to try to fashion a long-term security strategy for Mali. Several African countries, including Benin, Chad, Nigeria, Niger, Senegal, and Togo, that were planning to train the Malians to fight are now mustering forces to support the French combat operation.
The African forces lack many of the basic necessities, however, including fuel and transport. The Nigerian force commander of the African troops had to borrow a vehicle from the Nigerian embassy in Bamako, according to a U.N. official . A contingent from Togo arrived in Bamako with only enough rations to last about three days, the official said.
At a Jan. 19 summit, leaders of a West African coalition of states called for the urgent deployment of African forces and urged the United Nations to "immediately furnish the logistical support" for the African countries. The United Nations agreed to send a senior military advisor to Bamako to help coordinate the African's military planning, but it stopped short of supplying logistical support to the African forces on the grounds that it would compromise the U.N.'s impartiality.
"The United Nations must consider with the utmost care the issue of supporting offensive military operations in the light of the overall global mandate of the Organization," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon wrote in a letter to the Security Council this week. "I am obliged to bring to the attention of the Security Council the assessment of the Secretariat that, if the United Nations were to provide logistics support to military forces engaged in an offensive operation, it would place civilian United Nations personnel at grave risk, and undermine their ability to carry out their current tasks in the region."
U.N. officials say they expect Ban to get an earful from African leaders over his refusal to supply forces. African leaders are meeting at an AU summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Sunday and Monday. These officials have noted that the U.N. provided military support to African-led military operations in Somalia, and that U.N. peacekeepers have backed up offensive military operations by the Congolese government. Herve Ladsous, a former French official who serves as the U.N.'s top peacekeeping official, favors more active U.N. support for the Africans.
"The house is still divided; some feel we need to help the Africans," said one U.N. official. "We already do it in Somalia; how do you explain to the Africans why you can't do it in Mali?"
The debate over the future of Mali is playing out just as France has declared an initial victory in their effort to drive back the Islamist offensive, which had seen fighters move south from their northern stronghold and capturing the town of Konna on Jan. 10. The insurgents put up a far tougher fight than the French had initially anticipated, extending their control over southern towns of Diabaly and Douentza.
"This operation has been a success so far," said France's U.N. ambassador Gerard Araud. "Its primary goal has been met: the terrorist offensive against the south has been stopped thanks to the joint action of the Malian and French forces. The towns of Diabaly, Konna, and Douentza have been retaken by the Malian forces, with French support."
But senior U.N. diplomats believe that the fight has only begun, and that armed insurgents have simply beat a tactical retreat, and are likely to begin using traditional guerrilla tactics, launching targeted raids on the allied forces remaining behind to hold towns recently abandoned by the rebels. Despite public claims that the Malian army has been engaged in the fighting, some Western diplomats have acknowledged that the Malian army had all but collapsed into total disarray, leaving it to France to do the fighting. With the first phase of the French counteroffensive concluded, France will now trying to train the Malians and other African forces to hold the towns they have captured.
"It appears that in the western area, armed elements have moved closer to the Mauritanian border," Jeffrey Feltman, the U.N. undersecretary general for political affairs, told the Security Council on Tuesday. "The risk of infiltration and further attacks by these groups on southern towns, including Bamako, remains high."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sounded a gloomy note on the prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough on Syria, telling reporters today at Turtle Bay that U.N.-backed efforts to curtail the violence were proving elusive.
Ban's grim assessment comes as U.N.-Arab League Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi is in New York to press the U.N. Security Council to ratchet up political pressure on the warring parties to put down their weapons. But there are few signs that the big power divisions that have paralyzed the U.N. Security Council over the past two years have been overcome.
"Brahimi continues his diplomatic efforts. We met yesterday, and reviewed the latest state of play," Ban said. "Our shared assessment is that we are still a long way from getting the Syrians together."
"The situation is very dire, very difficult," he added. "We do not see much prospect of a resolution at this time."
It's no wonder.
In a Jan. 6 address to the Syrian people, President Bashar al-Assad effectively rejected the former Algerian diplomat's plan for a political transition.
Brahimi's Plan B -- a diplomatic effort to get United States and Russian agreement on a plan that would pressure the Syrian leader to step aside -- has gone nowhere. Senior U.N.-based diplomats say that those talks have achieved only the most incremental progress, and that while some Russian diplomats appear open to a deal, their political masters in Moscow have balked at any pact that would undercut Assad.
Earlier this month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made it clear that his government will accept no plan for a transitional government in Syria that requires Assad step down. Last week, Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, drove home that point at a Security Council luncheon hosted by Ban.
The Russian stance has dealt a blow to Brahimi's efforts to increase pressure on Assad to make way for a transitional government which would preserve a role for Syria's security institutions, but require him to step aside.
U.N. officials say that Brahimi recognizes that a Russian and American pact may not be enough to get the Syrian government and the rebels to stop fighting right away.
But the point of Brahimi's diplomatic strategy, said one U.N. official, is to "start changing the dynamics at play" by putting in place a diplomatic process that can eventually persuade the warring parties and their allies that there is a peaceful alternative to civil war.
The U.N. hopes, according to the U.N. official, that if the United States and Russia do converge on an agreed strategy, the U.N. Security Council will rally behind them, opening the door to the possibility of a legally binding Security Council resolution that would seek to compel the warring factions to stop fighting through the imposition of an arms embargo and other coercive measures.
"A U.S.-Russian agreement would not be a magic bullet. But it could very well lead to some possibilities that are currently unavailable because of the utter lack of unity in the international community," said the official. The armed opposition, meanwhile, "might have more faith in a political approach" if it is backed by a Security Council resolution "that makes Bashar's inevitable departure seem more real." The Syrian rebels have made clear that they will not accept any political transition that keeps Assad in place.
But some senior U.N.-based diplomats fear that Brahimi has run out of workable options. "It was a mistake of Brahimi to think we are in the Cold War and the Americans and the Russians can decide," said one senior U.N.-based diplomat . "Even if they agree I don't see how and why the fighters who have been fighting for 18 months or two years will accept the diktat of the United States and Russia."
Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at New York University's Center on Global Cooperation, said "Brahimi's calculation is that the regional players [who are arming the opposition] are not likely to shift their positions unless they see some sort of signal from the United States and Russia. As long as Russia and the United States are far apart there is no incentive for anyone in the region to rethink their stances. So that's the case for pushing ahead with the Russian track."
Gowan sees little reason to believe Moscow will "do anything to initiate the fall of Assad," saying that Russia is "just stringing everyone along as it has been stringing everyone along for a year." But he said he believes that Brahimi is keen to keep the talks going to pave the way for cooperation between Moscow and Washington in the event that Assad does fall. "This is creating some sort of basis for Russia and the United States to agree on a common response when Assad goes," he said.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is set to appoint a top former Qatari diplomat as his high representative of the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations, reinforcing the oil sheikdom's standing as a rising diplomatic powerhouse.
Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, a former Qatari envoy to the United Nations who served as U.N. General Assembly president last year, will replace Jorge Sampaio, a former Portuguese president who currently heads the organization.
The decision places a trusted Western ally at the head of an organization that aims to bridge the cultural gap between the West and the Islamic world.
The New York-based agency was established at the initiative of former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who proposed the creation of a high-level panel of eminent leaders to promote cooperation in the Christian and Muslim world. The Spanish proposal came several months after more than 192 people were killed in a terrorist attack in Madrid in March 2004. Turkey later signed on as a co-sponsor of the initiative.
The high-level group includes the Qatari emir's influential second wife, Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al Missned, the former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and U.S. Rabbi Arthur Schneier.
Qatar is an intriguing pick.
Qatar's emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and Sheika Mozah have sought to transform the emirate into the intellectual and cultural capital of the Middle East, sponsoring outposts for major Western universities, including Cornell and Georgetown, and think tanks like Brookings Doha Center.
Earlier this month, Qatar's satellite television station, Al Jazeera, purchased the Current TV cable channel, granting the government-funded news organization access to tens of millions of American households. So, in a sense, Qatar has already been at the forefront of bridging the cultural gap between the Islamic world and the West.
But the role of the Sunni monarchy within the Islamic world has been controversial, particularly in the Middle East, where Doha has been a protagonist in the emerging schism between the region's Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
The Gulf sheikdom has been a highly controversial actor in the region since the Arab Spring, funneling cash and weapons to revolutionaries seeking the overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi and insurgents in Syria, where Qatar backs the downfall of Bashar al-Assad and the ruling Alawite minority, which has close ties to Iran's Shiite government. During his tenure as General Assembly president, Nasser organized several sessions to condemn Syria's crackdown on protesters in Syria.
Qatar has contributed large sums of money to Sunni Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which the United States government considers a terrorist organization.
Despite its regional ambitions, Qatar has sought to cultivate a reputation as an intermediary between the Middle East and the West. It has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into peace efforts from Darfur to Lebanon, and it supports American military aims.
The United States view the Qatari monarchy, which hosts the largest U.S. military air base in the region, as a key ally in its military campaign in recent years in Afghanistan and Iraq. While Washington has privately expressed unease about Qatar's relations with Iran (with which it shares an enormous natural gas field), it believes that Qatar shares Washington's desire to contain Iran's influence in the region.
"I see this appointment playing perfectly into the way the Qataris try to market themselves diplomatically; they can use this as part of their global soft power projection and generate international good will," said Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. "With all due respect to the worthiness of this [Alliance of Civilizations] project -- and I think it is worthy," he added. "This is not real diplomacy; this is public relations."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
France's President Francois Hollande today announced plans to increase the number of French troops in Mali, marking an escalation in France's intervention in its former colony.
Despite the socialist president's efforts to mark a break with a history of French meddling in Africa's affairs, Paris finds itself back in a familiar role in Africa.
Nearly two years ago, President Nicolas Sarkozy led international campaign to intervene in Libya to oust Muammar al-Qaddafi. He also ordered French forces to help U.N. peacekeepers take down Laurent Gbagbo, the former Ivoirian leader who refused to accept step down after losing his presidential election.
So, was France's intervention in Mali a return to its past or is it something different? "I don't think this is more of the same; I think this is part of an emerging model of intervention where counterterrorism is the core," said Bruce Jones, director of NYU's Center on Global Cooperation. He said the Mali operation bears more similarity with Somalia -- where U.S. forces target suspected terrorists while African troops provide security -- than it does with historical efforts to intervene to shore up African leaders.
Whatever the similarities, France's role in Africa was supposed to look different from this under Hollande.
In a recent visit to the continent, the French leader assured African audiences that the era of Franceafrique, a period marked by frequent French military intervention on behalf of Africa's post colonial autocrats, was done with.
"I didn't come to Africa to impose my way, or deliver a lesson on morality," Hollande told Senegal's parliament in October. "The era of Franceafrique is over. There is now a France and there is an Africa. And there is a partnership between France and Africa, based on relationships that are founded on respect," he added during the visit.
But others recalled that Sarkozy had initially vowed to end the era of Franceafrique, only to find himself responding to the French urge to act in Libya and Ivory Coast. That urge reflects the enduring influence of Africa’s traditional interventionists in French politics, and in the case of Mali, the fact that 6,000 French nationals live in Mali, most of them in Bamako.
“If we go back to when Sarkozy came into office and talked about the end of Franceafrique and surrounded himself with a new generation of French Africa advisors those guys lost out and within two years the old guard reasserted itself,” said Todd Moss, an expert on West Africa at the Center for Global Development. “I’m sure the old French guard is very, very powerful if they were able to maintain their influence under Sarkozy. I wouldn’t’ be surprised if it is strong under Hollande.”
But other diplomats say France’s calculation was simpler, noting that one of the Islamist factions fighting in Mali, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, already holds eight French hostages captured in Mali and neighboring states.
“You can’t neglect the fact that the French have a large population in Bamako,” said one European diplomat. “The Islamists were moving towards those people, raising the threat that hundreds more could have been taken hostage. I’m sure the French government felt it had a responsibility to them.”
Still, Mali was supposed to be a model of that new relationship.
When separatist Tuareg fighters, backed by armed Islamist groups linked to al Qaeda, seized control of northern Mali last year, France vowed to keep its expeditionary forces in their barracks. They turned to regional leaders, backed by the United Nations, to help Mali's troubled army confront the Islamists.
Last month, France championed a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing a European-backed, African-led force to train the Malian army and help it reconquer its northern territories. But the effort has been complicated by a number of factors, not least of which is the fact that Mali's army came to power by staging a military coup against the country's elected leader.
The planned force was plagued by delays, making it unlikely that it would even arrive in Mali until September or October, providing the rebels with a window of opportunity to strike. Last week, they seized it, and began marching towards the south, capturing the town of Konna, and threatening the strategic town of Mopti. Mali's U.S.-trained military collapsed.
France's U.N. envoy Gerard Araud on Monday told reporters outside the U.N. Security Council that France had reluctantly entered Mali.
"Our assessment was that they were totally able to take Bamako," he said. "So, we decided that what was at stake was the existence of the state of Mali and beyond Mali was the stability of all West Africa."
While France's military action has its critics inside France and beyond (former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin denounced it), the strike has drawn widespread diplomatic, if not military, support.
The Group of 8 political directors today issued a statement welcoming the French military action. Vitaly Churkin, Russia's U.N. envoy and a vocal critic of the Western interventions in Libya, said Monday that France's intervention -- which followed a request for assistance from the Malian government -- was perfectly legal and that its operation enjoyed unanimous support in the 15-nation Security Council.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who had earlier cautioned that military intervention in Mali should be considered a last resort, backed the French move. The reaction from within the U.N. ranks could best be described as "quiet applause," said one senior U.N. official. "So many of us are so relieved, even though we don't know how this will end."
Jones said that the U.N.'s reticence about military action was driven primarily by concerns about "the limitations of their own capacity" to play a supporting role in an African-led war against Islamists in Mali. "I don't think the U.N. had any difficulty with having someone deal with al Qaeda in the Maghreb. They just didn't want to be in a position of doing it themselves. They were worried about taking on more than they could chew."
But having taken charge, France will be confronted with a new challenge: ensuring that its allies in the Malian army don't follow up any military victories by launching a revenge campaign against its enemies.
"There is no doubt that the human rights situation in Mali before the intervention was already catastrophic, with civilian populations suffering abuses at the hands of all the parties to the conflicts, whether Islamist groups, separatist rebels, as well as the Malian army itself," said Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch. "But the risks and human rights challenges that come with military intervention are many. It's important that neither the French nor [African peacekeepers] empower "the Malian army] to commit more."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Syria's suffering now has an official number: 59,648.
That's the death toll that Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, assigned to the Syrian government's bloody political crackdown and the resulting civil war, over a period ranging from March 15, 2011, to November 30, 2012.
The precise number is, of course, an educated guess, but that figure has almost certainly passed the 60,000 mark in the new year, Pillay said.
The real number, according to Pillay, is probably even higher than that, given the fact that much of the Syrian carnage has played out in dark places, beyond the prying eyes of witnesses. "The number of casualties is much higher than we expected, and is truly shocking," she said Wednesday.
In fact, the number -- which is significantly higher than previous, informal U.N. estimates of about 40,000 dead -- has caught many top U.N. officials by surprise.
So, how then, did the U.N. human rights office, which has virtually no presence on the ground in Syria, come up with that figure?
They commissioned a team of statistical wizards at Benetech, a West Coast non-profit that runs a human rights program that crunches data to unlock hidden patterns of mass killing around the world.
The team was headed by the group's lead statistician, Megan Price, and included Patrick Ball -- chief scientist and vice president of the firm's human rights data analysis group -- whose computer models have been used to identify patterns of human rights violations from Guatemala to South Africa, and whose numbers aided in the prosecution of the alleged Serbian war criminal Slobodan Milosevic. (Read the excellent profile of Ball by Tina Rosenberg here.)
Applying a data mining technique called an alternating decision tree, Price, Ball and Jeff Klinger compiled basic fatality figures -- such as victims' ages, time and place of death -- from seven separate data sets, including those maintained by the Syrian government and opposition groups, including the oft-cited Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The names and vital details of 147,349 reported killings were then run through a computer program that is designed to detect duplicate references to individuals. The model was refined by a native Syrian Arab speaker who went through a sample of about 8,200 pairs of killings.
The figure was then whittled down to 59,648 "unique" deaths, though Benetech notes that it "was not able to differentiate clearly between combatants and non-combatants." The seven data sets used ranged from the Syrian government's record of 2,539 dead to more than 38,120 counted by the Violations Documentation Center, an opposition group. The larger number included in Pillay's estimate reflected the fact that the analysis was drawn from seven separate data sets.
Price, the lead statistician, said that counting the dead in a war zone is a “really hard problem,” particularly given the fact that there are many other “things that feel more pressing than figuring out mortality figures in an active conflict.”
Price objected to the characterization of her group’s numbers as estimates, saying she and her colleagues simply enumerated “documented, verifiable deaths.”
“We in fact don’t know how many people have been killed in Syria,” she told Turtle Bay. “What we know is how many deaths have been documented by these seven groups.”
Price said she recognizes that the fog of war leaves open the possibility of errors creeping into her team’s count; for instance, an automobile accident victim counted as conflict related death. Or a single victims name is spelled differently on different data sets, leading to a single death counted as two.
But she said her team sought to anticipate some of these mistakes through a variety of computer procedures with names like “fuzzy matching” and “rejection rules.” An example of fuzzy matching could involve the identification of variations on a single name –like Bob, Bobby, Rob and Robert – that would be read by the computer as the same name. Rejections rules are designed to prevent the computer from eliminating a potential fatality because they share a similar attribute—say a name – with another victim, but are not likely the same person. “Rejections rules are hard boundaries you are going to define to say those records cannot match,” Price said. “A common rejection rule is gender: any two records that have different genders are not likely the same individual.”
The decision by U.N. officials to assign a death toll for a given conflict can be highly controversial, and invariably provokes challenges by governments and sometimes other U.N. officials. In 2009, Pillay encountered intense pushback from top U.N. officials before publishing an account of the number of civilians who were slaughtered during the final months of Sri Lanka's civil war.
This time around, Pillay's deputy, Ivan Simonovic, faced little opposition when he informed U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and other top U.N. officials before Christmas that Pillay's figure was going to be high-- though he didn't cite a number. One U.N. official said the figure turned out to be significantly higher than most of Ban's aides had anticipated.
Rupert Colville, Pillay's spokesman, told Turtle Bay that while this is the first time that the high commissioner has commissioned Benetech to estimate a conflict death toll, she has previously offered guesstimates of death tolls in Egypt and Tunisia.
Pillay released a Syrian death toll estimate in 2011, but resisted subsequent pressure to release an update because of uncertainty about the numbers. She was persuaded by Benetech's analysis, according to Colville.
Colville acknowledged that there "is a bit of a risk" in basing the high commissioner's estimate on raw data collected by independent groups. "It's not a perfect number," he said. "But given the level of research that went into this, it's far better than what we had before."
Benetech's analysis showed a steady increase in the rate of killing -- from 1,000 per month in the summer of 2011 to more than 5,000 per month since July 2012. The vast majority of those killed were male -- over 76 percent. Just 7.5 percent were female. (The gender was unclear for 16.4 percent of cases.)
As for the geography of this grim toll, the largest numbers of killings were in Homs (12,560), rural Damascus (10,862), and Idlib (7,686), followed by Aleppo (6,188), Daraa (6,034) and Hama (5,080).
"While many details remain unclear, there can be no justification for the massive scale of the killing highlighted by this analysis," Pillay said. "The failure of the international community, in particular the Security Council, shames us all."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Earlier this year, Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League mediator for Syria, determined that more than 3,000 heavily-armed U.N. blue helmets would be required in Syria to enforce a peace deal he was hoping to broker between President Bashar al-Assad's government and an assortment of anti-government armed forces and opposition politicians.
The U.N. force, in Brahimi's view, could place some military muscle behind his plan to end the country's civil war by creating a national unity government to oversee the country's democratic transition. So far, the U.N. trouble-shooter's mediation efforts has stalled in the face of diplomatic deadlock between the United States and Russia and escalating fighting by warring parties in Syria.
In recent weeks, Brahimi has achieved some progress, bringing Russian and American diplomats together for talks that raised hopes that superpower pressure on the warring parties to silence their guns could lead to a diplomatic breakthrough. Brahimi is currently weighing plans to travel to the region, including a possible visit to Damascus, to continue pressing for an agreement on a national unity government, setting the stage for the deployment of such force.
"Syria needs a peaceful, political solution that brings democratic change, while preserving the fabric of Syrian society and the peaceful coexistence of its communities," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters at U.N. headquarters yesterday, during his year-end press conference. But he voiced growing gloom about the prospects for a peaceful outcome to the crisis, saying "we do not see any prospect of any end of violence or any prospect of political dialogue to start."
Internally, U.N. officials are growing increasingly skeptical about the chances for a negotiated settlement or the wisdom of sending a U.N. peacekeeping mission to Syria to restore stability. They argue that a much larger multinational force, preferably led by European governments, would stand a better chance of filling the security vacuum in Syria..But one U.N.-based official conceded there "seems to be no appetite [in European capitals] to deploy boots on the ground.".
The new thinking comes as armed opposition forces have seemed to turn the tide in the military conflict, capturing key military installations near Damascus, threatening Syrian aircraft with newly acquired shoulder-to-air rockets, and throwing into question the very survival of the Assad government.
On Tuesday, Russia sent two warships to its Mediterranean port of Tartus in Syria to ready for a possible evacuation of Russian nationals in the event Assad is overthrown, Reuters reported, citing Russia's Interfax News Agency.
While the United States and other Western powers have long favored Assad's fall from power, there is mounting concern that his violent overthrow or abdication could trigger the dissolution of the Syrian state, including the Syrian Army, generating the kind of sectarian violence and chaos that marked the messy aftermath of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's overthrow by a U.S.-led coalition in 2003.
Only a week ago, some U.N. diplomats were confident that President Assad's military setbacks would force him to begin serious negotiations on a power-sharing arrangement, increasing the prospects for a political breakthrough, according to sources. But the pace of the rebels' battlefield achievements have quickened, lessening the likelihood that they would agree to anything but total military victory.
U.N.-based diplomats worry that an abrupt collapse of his regime would unleash a destructive wave in violence, transforming regime forces into an armed insurgents, triggering reprisal killings against the country's ruling Alawites, and fueling political and sectarian strike throughout the region.
"Everybody is aware that all tides are moving against Assad; that the tide is rolling in on him," said one Security Council diplomat. "The question is when and how."
It's the how that worries Brahimi.
The central pillar of Brahimi's diplomatic strategy -- the Geneva Action plan, which enjoys the support of the United States, Russia, and other key powers -- called for a phased transition, led by a unity government made up of regime and opposition leaders, and secured by a mutually agreed ceasefire. Under the plan, a U.N. peacekeeping mission would be deployed to monitor the transition, which would culminate in Assad's formal departure sometime in 2014, and to deter potential attacks against the country's minorities, principally revenge attacks against the ruling Alawites.
"It looks like the military balance on the ground appears to be really shifting in favor of the opposition, and that we are moving toward a military victory by one side," said a senior U.N.-based source familiar with the planning. "But there will be no ceasefire, and no end to violence, which is a much worse scenario."
Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at New York University's Center on International Cooperation, said that military developments are torpedoing Brahimi's carefully laid plans.
"I think it's now fairly clear that the Geneva [Action Plan] is dead," Gowan said. "And if Brahimi is going to have any credibility he is going to have show flexibility and respond to a potential collapse of the Assad regime. That is going to mean putting aside a lot of the conditions the Russians and Chinese are still clinging to and working with those who have the power on the ground. That's the ugly reality facing Brahimi."
U.N. officials are now beginning to incorporate this worst-case scenario into their planning. Until recently, U.N. peacekeeping officials had been developing contingency plans for a new U.N. peacekeeping mission with a mandate to implement a peace agreement between the warring factions.
The U.N. blue-helmet force was to be deployed in Damascus and in key cities along the Mediterranean coast, stretching as far north as the town of Latakia. They would secure a major supply route from the sea to Damascus, and deter attacks against vulnerable civilians. In contrast to previous U.N. and Arab monitoring missions, the United Nations would insist this time on access to high-tech intelligence, communications, and air and ground transport.
The U.N. has informally reached out to European governments to see whether they would be willing to commit peacekeepers to such a force, or to permit the U.N. to move European blue helmets currently stationed in southern Lebanon -- where they are monitoring the border with Israel -- to Syria.
But the U.N. has ruled out a role for the United States or key regional powers, including Turkey, with interest in Syria. The U.N. doesn't believe "it would be politically wise to have the Americans in the lead in that region," said the senior U.N.-based source. "And [the U.N.] doesn't believe it should be led by the immediate neighbors. That leaves the European Union, plus NATO, minus the Americans."
Gowan said that there may ultimately be a role for key European and regional powers, including France, Turkey, and Russia, to participate in a multinational force in Syria.
But he said that the United Nations -- which already has several thousand European peacekeepers deployed nearby in southern Lebanon -- may have to move in quickly to avert a bloodbath against the Alawites.
"The U.N.'s deployment plan could actually provide a basis for protecting the minorities," said Gowan, noting that the countries' largest concentration of Syrian Alawites resides near the coast. "But if you have a scenario with a high level of instability and you need to use pretty serious force to restore order, the United Nations cannot do that. You would need a multinational force, backed by NATO, and indirectly backed by the United States."
In New York, U.N.-based diplomats and officials worry there may be no political will in Washington and European capitals for an international intervention force, and that the job will be left to an ill-equipped force of U.N. blue helmets. "Can U.N. peacekeeping deal with this situation?" asked one official. "We all have doubts."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius today announced that France would support the Palestinian bid for recognition as a state at the United Nations, frustrating efforts by President Barack Obama to persuade the Palestinian leader to stand down. "For several years, France's official position has been to recognize the Palestinian state.... When the question will be asked, France will answer "Yes" for consistency's sake," Fabius told the French Parliament.
The remarks come two days before Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to preside over a U.N. General Assembly vote on a resolution recognizing Palestine as a "non-member state" at the United Nations. Fabius's comment also appeared calculated to deliver a political boost to the Palestinian leader, who has been eclipsed by its more militant rival, Hamas, whose influence has risen with the fortunes of the region's Islamist governments, principally Egypt.
The new status would not confer on the Palestinian the status of a full U.N. member state, but could pave the way for admission in other international organizations, including the International Criminal Court, that do not require states parties to be full-fledged members of the United Nations.
A previous bid by the Palestinians to become a U.N. member state faltered more than a year ago in the face of firm American opposition within the U.N. Security Council.
The United States maintains that the Palestinian route to statehood should proceed through a negotiated peace settlement with the Israeli government. But such talks have been stalled.
European governments have been generally sympathetic to the Palestinian quest for statehood, but several capitals, including London and Berlin, have urged the Palestinians to back down, saying the move could undercut prospects for a resumption of future peace talks, and could damage its relations with President Obama, who has appealed with Abbas not to move forward.
"We have made consistently clear that we think that it is wrong for the Palestinians to bring this resolution to a vote at this time and that it isn't likely to be a helpful contribution to the peace process in the Middle East," Britain's U.N. ambassador Mark Lyall-Grant told reporters today. "But we have not made a decision yet that if it does come to a vote, how we will vote."
The Guardian reported that Britain has privately pledged to back Abbas if he pledges not to pursue Israel for war crimes through the International Criminal Court and agrees to return to the peace table with Israel without preconditions.
Germany is expected to vote against the measure or abstain on the grounds that the initiative provides little hope of advancing the prospects for peace in the region.
"Little can be achieved by it. If the Palestinians believe it will push the Israelis into negotiations we don't believe that. If they might have in mind to take the issue to the International Criminal Court it will not help, of course, from the perspective of a return to the negotiation table," said one senior U.N. based diplomat. "We fear Abbas is heading for a dangerous Phyrric victory ... the danger is the Palestinians will even more drastically and dramatically turn to Hamas when they see that Abbas has not brought anything tangible for them. It might backfire for Abbas."
But others say American and Israeli opposition to Abbas' statehood bid will backfire. "If the world wants to express support for the Palestinian party that recognizes Israel, seeks to avoid violence, and genuinely wishes to reach a peace agreement in which a Palestinian state exists alongside -- not instead of -- Israel, it will have its chance later this week when Mr. Abbas makes his bid for recognition of Palestinian statehood before the United Nations," Yossi Beilin, an architect of the Oslo Accords wrote in the New York Times. "If American and Israeli opposition to a Palestinian bid continues, it could serve as a mortal blow to Mr. Abbas, and end up being a prize that enhances the power and legitimacy of Hamas."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.
Today's big Syria headline from Beijing: China unveils new 4-point peace initiative to end country's civil war.
The Chinese plan is, in a nutshell, a few bits and pieces borrowed from pre-existing Arab League and U.N. peace initiatives -- i.e, a phased region-by-region ceasefire, a political transition, and stepped up humanitarian relief. There's not a lot new here. And the irony is that these initiatives have, in the past, failed to gain momentum, in part, because China joined Russia in vetoing three resolutions promoting similar plans.
"A political settlement is the only viable solution in Syria," Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said, according to Xinhua, which outlined Beijing's big idea:
First, relevant parties in Syria should make every effort to stop fighting and violence, and cooperate actively with the mediation efforts of Brahimi. Relevant parties should implement effective steps toward a cease-fire, for example region by region or phase by phase, expand the areas of cease-fire, realize disengagement, and eventually bring an end to all armed conflict and violence.
Second, relevant parties in Syria should appoint empowered interlocutors as soon as possible so that, assisted by Brahimi and the international community, they can formulate through consultations a roadmap of political transition, establish a transitional governing body of broad representation, and implement political transition so as to end the Syrian crisis at an early date. To ensure a safe, stable and calm transition, the continuity and effectiveness of Syria's governmental institutions must be maintained.
Third, the international community should work with greater urgency and responsibility to fully cooperate with and support Brahimi's mediation efforts and make real progress in implementing the communique of the Geneva foreign ministers' meeting of the Action Group for Syria, Mr. Annan's six-point plan and relevant Security Council resolutions. The positive efforts of the Arab League and countries in the region in search of a political settlement should be valued.
Fourth, relevant parties should take concrete steps to ease the humanitarian crisis in Syria. The international community should increase humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people and ensure proper resettlement of refugees beyond the Syrian border and timely aid for those in need within Syria. The Syrian government and various parties should render full cooperation to the work of the United Nations and relevant neutral institutions to provide humanitarian assistance in all conflict-affected regions and ensure the safety of their personnel. At the same time, humanitarian issues should not be politicized and humanitarian assistance should not be militarized.
So, what are we to make of China's peace initiative?
Does it mark a turning point in its commitment to see the 18-month civil war brought to an end? Or an admission, perhaps, that Beijing is growing weary of its Syrian ally's refusal to halt a ruthlessly disproportionate response to its armed opponents, at the cost of thousands of civilian lives?
Or is this what a government does when a prominent international envoy -- in this case U.N.-Arab League Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, shows up at your door to press you to knuckle down on a recalcitrant friend? So is this just what Beijing scrapped together to appear that it's seriously invested in making peace?
Through most of the Syrian conflict, China has largely sought to avoid drawing much attention to itself, offering few ideas to resolve the crisis in closed-door Security Council consultations, while sticking to stock government talking points in public statements about the need to resolve the crisis peacefully while respecting Syria's sovereignty.
It's worth noting that while China is a major power, it's a bit player on Syria, taking its cue from Russia, which has been reluctant to ratchet up pressure on Bashar al-Assad to yield power to Syria's opposition forces. But Beijing has occasionally raised its profile -- it previously sent a high-level delegation to Middle East capitols to explain and defend its decision to veto Arab-backed U.N. Security Council resolutions on Syria - to avoid a political backlash against Chinese interests in the region.
It's probably useful that Beijing be seen backing Brahimi's mediation effort. And there is a curiously specific, though vague, call for a phased ceasefire in the proposal. But a close look at China's plan reveals that Beijing is largely restating positions previously agreed to by the international community -- including Kofi Annan's six-point plan and the Geneva Communiqué -- backed by the U.N.'s five big powers.
The Chinese plan also sidesteps controversial matters, like the fate of Assad at the end of a political transition. And there was little in China's statement that echoed Brahimi's call in Moscow earlier this week for "a real transition, not cosmetic reforms" in Syria. One Security Council diplomat dismissed the Chinese initiative as containing the same fatal flaw as its long-standing stance on Syria -- it's unwilling to apply pressure on Damascus to halt the killing.
Meanwhile, the Syrians haven't been able to get through Eid al-Adha, the Muslim religious holiday, without killing one another. "The government made the announcement that they were going to stop firing during the Eid period," Brahimi said in Moscow on Monday. Quite a few of the opposition groups did the same. Now each side is accusing the other side of having broken this ceasefire. The result is that there was no pause and the people of Syria haven't spent quiet days during the Eid."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.
President Barack Obama last night boasted about American leadership in toppling Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, reopening the debate about whether it was the United States or France and Britain that deserved credit for overthrowing Africa's longest ruling dictator.
"I and Americans took leadership in organizing an international coalition that made sure that we were able to -- without putting troops on the ground, at the cost of less than what we spent in two weeks in Iraq -- liberate a country that had been under the yoke of dictatorship for 40 years, got rid of a despot who had killed Americans," Obama said in the final presidential debate. "And as a consequence, despite this tragedy, you had tens of thousands of Libyans after the events in Benghazi marching and saying, ‘America's our friend.'"
"This is an example of -- of how we make choices, you know, when we went into Libya and we were able to immediately stop the massacre there because of the unique circumstances and the coalition that we had helped to organize, we also had to make sure that Muammar Qaddafi didn't stay there," he said. "Muammar Qaddafi had more American blood on his hands than any individual other than Osama bin Laden. And so we were going to make sure that we finished the job."
The American claim to having led the effort has always irritated the French and British, who first mounted a diplomatic campaign at the U.N. Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent Qaddafi from using his aircraft to attack civilians. The United States initially refused to participate in that effort and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, repeatedly criticized the European initiative as feckless.
One top European diplomat denounced Washington's claims of leadership over the Libya campaign as "revisionist history." This morning, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen weighed in, arguing that Obama's claims of having led the coalition in Libya was among the most dishonest claims of the entire foreign policy debate.
President Obama "strongly suggested that he had America take the lead in Libya, organizing the air campaign that brought down Moammar Gaddafi. In fact, the French took the lead and the United States followed, which gave rise the phrase "leading from behind" -- an indictable offense, if you ask me. Obama also suggested that Gaddafi was some sort of American enemy when actually Washington had cut a deal with the Libyan strongman and then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice had met with him in 2008."
So what actually happened? I covered the diplomatic deliberations over the war against Libya. And while the United States initially provided little diplomatic support to their European allies' push for a no-fly zone ( and largely kept them in the dark about internal U.S. deliberations on the use of force), it ultimately took charge of the diplomatic effort at the U.N., and pursued a far more aggressive military approach than that advocated by the Europeans.
In March, 2011, pro-Qaddafi forces advanced on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, preparing to deliver a decisive blow that could have crushed the nascent armed resistance and led to the slaughter of large numbers of civilians.
Britain and France, with the backing of Lebanon, labored in solitude behind the scenes in New York to rally support for a resolution that would have imposed a no-fly zone over Libya, but received virtually no support from the United States.
"The Americans haven't yet defined their position on Libya," the frustrated then French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told a French parliamentary foreign affairs committee on March 15, 2011, two daysbefore the council acted. "Never mind that there's European impotence, but what about American power? What about Russian power? What's China's power over Libya?"
France's irritation stemmed from a perception that President Obama's national security team was hesitant to participate in an air operation to protect civilians. Even as the White House labored in internal discussions toward considering a military approach, Rice peppered her colleagues in the Security Council with so many questions and conditions -- we won't go in without the Arabs, for instance -- that some suspected she was trying to kill off the initiative.
Two days before the air campaign was ultimately authorized, France's U.N. ambassador, Gerard Araud, informed Rice that European governments would push for a vote on a resolution creating a no-fly zone, with or without America's support.
Rice, who lacked instructions from Washington to rally support for a military response, was not prepared to support her European allies, according to council diplomats. "You're not going to drag us into your shitty war," Rice snapped, according to an account by a senior council diplomat. Araud shot back: "We are not a subsidiary of the United States."
But the winds shifted after the Arab League threw its support behind the no-fly zone and the prospects of a mass killing in eastern Libya grew, placing the United States in the position of having to choose whether to back a military response, or step aside.
Following the conversation between Rice and Araud, the United States held a high-level teleconference with Obama's top national security team, including Rice and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had just met with Arab leaders, agreed to intervene. Rice, who had a deep skepticism about the European approach, mounted a far more aggressive campaign for a resolution authorizing air strikes against Libyan forces to prevent the slaughter of civilians. Within two days, Rice had secured narrow 10-5 vote in favor of military force, underscoring the tenuous international support, but sufficient to launch the air war, which ultimately helped the rebels over throw Qaddafi.
A senior administration official said that the off-color encounter with Araud didn't "ring a bell" with Rice. But the official defended Rice's handling of the Libya file. The British and French were unaware that at the time she was questioning the wisdom of their approach -- which she called a "naked no-fly zone" -- that she was arguing for far tougher action in the White House, and that she had discretely advised her staff weeks earlier to draft a resolution authorizing sweeping military powers, according to the senior U.S. diplomat. (The contents of the draft have never been published.)
"There were some colleagues who were supportive of action who quite frankly thought we were trying to poison this, that we were trying to up the ante so far that we blew it up," Rice told me last year. "But we were dead serious and we believed this couldn't be half hearted. It had to be for real if it was worth doing."
Fair enough. But the notion that the United States led the U.N. effort in Libya continues to grate on the nerves of some European diplomats who felt the Americans left their closest allies in the dark until the final decision to act.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Woah. Who could imagine that a Republican presidential candidate would pledge to go to the United Nations for lessons on fighting the war-on-terror?
Sure, Mitt Romney said in the final foreign policy phase of the debates that he'll "go after the bad guys" and ‘kill them to take them out of the picture."
But once he's done taking down al Qaeda's lieutenants, Romney said he would look to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) -- a department long criticized by Republican hardliners -- for a plan to counter extremism in the Muslim world.
"We can't kill our way out of this mess. We're going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the ... world of Islam and other parts of the world, reject this radical violent extremism, which is -- it's certainly not on the run," Romney said. "And how we do that? A group of Arab scholars came together, organized by the U.N., to look at how we can help the -- the world reject these -- these terrorists. And the answer they came up was this:"
"One, more economic development. We should key our foreign aid, our direct foreign investment and that of our friends -- we should coordinate it to make sure that we -- we push back and give them more economic development. Number two, better education. Number three, gender equality. Number four, the rule of law. We have to help these nations create civil societies."
Those prescriptions for change come straight out of The Arab Development Report, which was first published by the United Nations Development Program in 2002 and championed by the agency's then-executive director Mark Malloch Brown. It brought together about 200 scholars, policymakers, and opinion leaders from the Arab world and asked them to propose ways to improve the lives of ordinary people in the Muslim World.
The report's findings have long been controversial in the Arab world, however, and U.N. leaders -- including former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and current U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon -- have done little to compel Arab leaders to abide by them.
But since the Arab Spring, Ban has cited the U.N. publication of the annual report as evidence that the United Nations had been committed to democratic change in the region -- even though the Arab world's despots, including former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, were routinely lauded as peacemakers.
Romney's embrace of the UNDP initiative also marks a remarkable break for Republicans, who have clashed with UNDP over its program on North Korea, which was shut down in 2007 following allegations by the George W. Bush administration that a $3.7 million annual program was improperly funneling hard currency to the regime. The program has since been reopened under stricter regulations.
Romney did take some swipes at President Barack Obama for pursuing a diplomatic process at the United Nations, where more than a year's worth of efforts have failed to get President Bashar al-Assad to step down from power. "What I'm afraid of is we've watched over the past year or so, first the president saying, well we'll let the U.N. deal with it. And Assad -- excuse me, Kofi Annan -- came in and said we're going to try to have a ceasefire. That didn't work. Then it went to the Russians and said, let's see if you can do something."
Romney sought to contrast his own approach, saying he would support efforts by regional powers -- including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar -- to arm the Syrian rebels. But in the end, Romney placed strict limits on the use of U.S. power to get the job done. "I don't want to have our military involved in Syria. I don't think there is a necessity to put our military in Syria at this stage. I don't anticipate that in the future," he said. "As I indicated, our objectives are to replace Assad and to have in place a new government which is friendly to us, a responsible government, if possible. And I want to make sure they get armed and they have the arms necessary to defend themselves, but also to remove -- to remove Assad. But I do not want to see a military involvement on the part of our -- of our troops."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson urged Afghanistan's Western donors to remain committed to funding the country's education, health, and development programs after the United States and its military allies withdraw their military forces from the country at the end of 2014.
"These enormous resources that have been spent on the military presence should in some form be transferred into civilian programs," Eliasson said in an interview in his U.N. office overlooking the East River. "We hope that this date of 2014 and the withdrawal does not mean that we are not committed to help Afghanistan."
The appeal comes as the United States and its Western allies have begun the work of dismantling their decade-long nation-building effort, raising concern that the phasing out of hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance programs will result in hardships for civilians in conflict zones that have received much of the money.
The United States and its military allies have channeled most of their reconstruction and relief efforts through a series of Provincial Reconstruction Teams that have served as the hearts and minds programs in support of the anti-Taliban military effort. The program, which built roads and hospitals and funded health and education programs, will largely be shuttered along with the military withdrawal.
About 90 percent of Afghanistan's budget is funded by foreign donors, and there are concerns that an abrupt withdrawal will plunge the country into dire economic straits.
In July, the United States and other international donors pledged more than $16 billion in assistance to fill the financial gap left behind by the military withdrawal. And the U.N.'s special representative in Afghanistan, Jan Kubis, provided an upbeat assessment of Afghanistan's future, saying he was confident that the international community would remain engaged in Afghanistan after the 2014 withdrawal, FP's David Bosco noted in his Multilateralist blog.
Eliasson said he hoped the large financial pledges would lead to "concrete assistance" in education, health care, and programs aimed at assisting girls and women. But he acknowledged that the international community faces daunting political, financial, and security challenges in Afghanistan.
The International Crisis Group, meanwhile, issued a paper Monday warning that the internationally backed government in Kabul is in danger of collapsing after the 2014 withdrawal of NATO forces if no steps are taken to ensure fair presidential elections in that same year.
"There are alarming signs Karzai hopes to stack the deck for a favored proxy. Demonstrating at least will to ensure clean elections could forge a degree of national consensus and boost popular confidence, but steps toward a stable transition must begin now to prevent a precipitous slide toward state collapse. Time is running out," according to the report. "As foreign aid and investment decline with the approach of the 2014 draw-down, so, too, will political cohesion in the capital."
The political forecast for Afghanistan has also been clouded by questions about the Taliban's willingness to accept an international role in the country. Early this week, Taliban militants in Pakistan attacked 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai, an outspoken advocate of education for girls. A spokesman for Pakistan's Taliban movement, Ehsanullah Ehsan, claimed responsibility for the killing, saying she was "promoting Western culture in Pashtun areas."
Eliasson said he hopes this "incredibly brutal act" doesn't signal a broader move by the Taliban movement, which has deep roots in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to reject foreign assistance as a tool of Western influence.
"If that school of though would prevail in Afghanistan, it would show even more how important it is that we continue to help the Afghan people and the Afghan government," he said. "I hope that even among the Taliban some would react to this extreme action."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.
Turkey's U.N. envoy Ertugrul Apakan delivered the U.N. Security Council a letter tonight describing the Syrian mortar attack against a small border village in Turkey as "an act of aggression" that "constitutes a flagrant violation of international law."
The Turkish envoy called on the 15-nation council to "take necessary action to put an end to such acts of aggression and that Syria respects Turkey's sovereignty, territorial integrity and security."Apakan said that Syrian armed forced shelled the town of Akcakale near the Turkish border, killing "five Turkish civilians, all of whom were women and children, as well as a number of serious injuries" to others.
The Turkish letter marks the opening of a diplomatic campaign at the United Nations to muster wide international support against Syria. It makes no reference to Ankara's military reprisals against Syria. But it warns Syria not to bring "an immediate end" to any further "unacceptable violations" of Turkish territory.
"This is an act of aggression by Syria against Turkey," Apakan wrote. "It constitutes a flagrant violation of international law as well as a breach of international peace and security."
It remained unclear precisely what sort of action Turkey favored.
The U.N. Security Council is planning to meet tomorrow to consider the Turkish request. Before Turkey responded militarily to the Syrian mortar attack, some council diplomats had been considering pushing for a statement condemning Syria's action. Council diplomats said they are now updating the language.
Acting on behalf of Turkey, Azerbaijan tonight circulated a draft Security Council statement condemning Syria "in the strongest terms" and expressing "sincere condolences" to the Turkish government and the families of the victims. The statement demands that Syria desist from further "violations" of international law.
The statement, however, would require the support of all 15 members of the council to be adopted. Russia, which is Syria's closest ally on the Security Council, has asked for a delay until 10:00 AM (NYC time) to decide whether to back the statement.
France's foreign ministry, meanwhile, issued a statement recalling that it is a military "ally" and that Turkey enjoyed its full support.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Three years ago, then Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi stood at the U.N. General Assembly podium, held up a copy of the U.N. Charter, and declared he would not recognize its authority.
This afternoon, Mohammed Magarrief, the president of Libya's national assembly, affirmed his commitment to the charter and issued an apology to the membership for the crimes committed by Libya's former ruler.
"Three years ago, a despot who ruled my country for 42 years with oppression and an iron fist stood on this very rostrum and tore a copy of the charter of the United Nations," he said. "Today, I am standing on the very same rostrum affirming my country's support of the charter of the United Nations and our respect for it."
Dressed in a crisp Western business suit, Libya's new leader sought to present a starkly different image from Qaddafi, who was known for his often outlandish robes and designer sunglasses.
In contrast to the long, rambling anti-imperial rants that characterized his predecessor's U.N. speeches, Magarrief spoke from a prepared text, and remained on the podium for about 27 minutes, longer than 15 minutes allotted, but a far cry from Qaddafi's interminable monologues.
He sought to assure other countries that his government would seek to get along with the international community and abide by the rules of the road.
Qaddafi funneled weapons to insurgent groups throughout the continent, fueling conflicts from West Africa to Sudan, and he played a role in some of the most audacious acts of international terror, including the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, an attack that killed 243 passengers, 16 crew members, and 11 people on the ground.
"I stand before you today, before the entire world, to apologize for all the harm, all the crimes committed by that despot against so many innocents, to apologize for the extortion and terrorism he meted on so many states," Magarrief said.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Tunisia's President Moncef Marzouki urged the United Nations to declare dictatorship a disease, much like polio and small pox, and launch a campaign to eliminate autocratic rule.
He proposed the establishment of a global constitutional court, along the lines of the International Criminal Court, to pass judgment on the integrity of governments, elections, and legal institutions.
The proposal probably stands little chance of being created, given international concerns about interference in states' sovereign affairs, but it underscored the deep emotional reservoir of anger towards autocratic regimes by a new generation of leaders brought the power by popular unrest known as the Arab Spring.
"My country proposes that we consider that dictatorship is a disease, a disease that is threatening peace and security and well as the prosperity of people," Marzouki said. "We invite the U.N. to declare that dictatorship is a social and political scourge which needs to be eliminated."
Marzouki said that Tunisia's long-ruling dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, benefited from the manipulation of supposedly democratic institutions, including the judiciary and electoral machinery, to ensure he would rule forever.
An international constitutional court, he said, could denounce constitutional irregularities, fraudulent elections, and other illegal schemes. "This would be a deterrent weapon against any despot, against any tyrannical regime, and will contribute to the very disappearance of these regimes, because these courts will strengthen the role of civic resistance. Otherwise, the only choice is to live under oppression or alternatively turn to violence. And we all know how expensive that could be."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
The murder of U.S. ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other American nationals in Libya this week drove home the point that America's Foreign Service officers, far from their reputation as pencil-pushing bureaucrats, often confront enormous personal risks in the field.
In a rare act of bipartisan unity, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) and ranking member Richard Lugar (R-IN) issued a resolution commending the fallen Americans and arranged a memorial with a photograph of Stevens, who had once served as a congressional aide to the committee.
"It's a stark reminder that anywhere in the world, those people representing our country in the foreign service are on the front lines," Kerry told my Washington Post colleague Karen DeYoung. "It's more dangerous than it has been in a long time because of radical, extreme religious exploitation and terrorism."
But members of Stevens' profession have more often been the object of ridicule and criticism in Washington, particularly among conservatives who have viewed career Foreign Service officers as too sympathetic to the Democratic Party, too willing to sell out American interests, and reluctant to follow orders from Republican presidents' political appointees.
Barry Goldwater, the patron saint of the American conservative movement, once suggested that the only way to fix the State Department is by "firing the first six floors" below the Secretary of State's 7th floor office.
Even in the midst of the ongoing crisis in the Middle East, conservative commentators have lashed out at America's ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, a career officer whose previous posting was in Pakistan, for rumors that she had ordered U.S. Marines not to carry live ammunition, according to a report in Mother Jones. The allegation, drawn from conservative blogs was untrue, according to the Marine Corps, which issued a statement saying "reports of Marines not being able to have their weapons loaded per direction from the Ambassador are not accurate."
The memoirs of the Bush administration's most conservative foreign policy figures, including John Bolton, who would later apply Goldwater remedy for reform to the United Nations, and Douglas Feith, reveal deep suspicions regarding the political inclinations of Foreign Service officers. "The essence of my complaint about the State Department [is] the refusal of officials there to look to their president as their touchstone," Feith wrote in his book War and Decision.
In his memoir Surrender is Not an Option, Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, derided State Department Brahmins for promoting a culture of "clientitis" and conspiring with so-called EUroids -- European Union diplomats -- and other foreign diplomats to hatch agreements that served the aims of diplomacy more than American interests.
"State careerists are schooled in accommodation and compromise with foreigners, rather than aggressive advocacy of U.S. interests, which might inconveniently disrupt the serenity of diplomatic exchanges, not to mention dinner parties and receptions," Bolton wrote.
In the president election, Texas Governor Rick Perry, found a ready target in the Foreign Service. "I'm not sure our State Department serves us well," Perry told Fox New host Bill O'Reilly in a radio interview in November 2011. "I'm talking about the career diplomats and the Secretary of State who, all too often, may not be making decisions, or giving advice in the administration that's in the country's best interest."
In Washington, this week, the embassy attacks provided policymakers with an opportunity to reflect on a profession which is not always understood or fully appreciated by the public, and which is frequently vilified for being insufficiently patriotic.
"All over the world, every day, America's diplomats and development experts risk their lives in the service of our country and our values, because they believe that the United States must be a force for peace and progress in the world, that these aspirations are worth striving and sacrificing for," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday, noting that the names of America's fallen diplomats are inscribed in marble in the State Department lobby. "Alongside our men and women in uniform, they represent the best traditions of a bold and generous nation."
Susan Johnson, the president of the American Foreign Service Association, said remarks like Perry's underscore ignorance about the role Foreign Service professionals play in serving American interests. "There are those few who have the suspicion that you're sympathizing more with foreigners than with Americans," she said. "There is a view that these [foreigners] are people who hate America and therefore we should be shooting them, killing them or at best having nothing to do with them."
Johnson said she hopes the tragedy in Libya will help us "put behind the outmoded image of diplomats as striped-pants cookie pushers."
Diplomacy has always been politically fraught in a country founded on fears of foreign entanglements, a sentiment that rose to a fevered pitch during the Joseph McCarthy era, when American diplomats were investigated for suspected sympathies with the Soviet Union. The profession has carried personal risks for Foreign Service officers since William Palfrey, a former aide de camp to Gen. George Washington, who was lost at sea in 1780 while en route to serve to serve as America's consul general to France. The American Foreign Service Association keeps an online list of the names of U.S. diplomats killed in the line of duty. Generations of American diplomats during the 19th century were stricken down by cholera, yellow fever, and small pox serving the cause of diplomacy abroad.
While diplomats still succumb to the ravages of tropical disease, American and other Western diplomats have been targeted by terrorists since early 1979, when Iranian revolutionaries stormed the U.S. embassy. That same year, America's ambassador to Kabul, Adolph Dubs, was assassinated -- the last ambassador (before this week's events) to die violently on the job. In October of last year, U.S. ambassador to Damascus Robert Ford was withdrawn from Syria on the grounds that it was too dangerous.
Even in Libya, which is a nominally pro-Western government, foreign diplomats have been the target of terrorist attacks since April, when armed groups exploded a roadside bomb alongside a convoy carrying the U.N.'s top representative, Ian Martin. In June, armed groups attacked a British convoy carrying Britain's ambassador to Libya, Dominic Asquith. The ambassador was unharmed, but two British guards were injured.
"I got the first attack on the international community back in April, but mine was only a little IED (Improvised Explosive Device)," said Martin, who headed the U.N. mission in East Timor during the violent siege of 1999.
Former U.S. diplomats say that the American public generally doesn't appreciate the risks diplomats face and the importance of their work in serving American interests. And they said diplomats like Stevens -- an Arabic speaker who arrived at his posting (via cargo ship) as a special envoy to the anti-Qaddafi insurgency in Benghazi.
"Chris Stevens, whom I knew, really represented the very best of the foreign service," said Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Israel and founding director of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. "The capabilities of people like this is in the Foreign Service are precious for the country and they are not well understood or really appreciated."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.
MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images
The United Nations marked the death of U.S. Ambassador John Christopher Stevens, Sean Smith, and two other American nationals in Benghazi, Libya, with the customary expressions of condolence invoked when a U.N. member state endures a national tragedy.
The U.N. Security Council duly condemned the "heinous" murder of the American diplomatic delegation. A "saddened" U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon offered his condolences to the United States government and the "bereaved Libyan and American families." And other council diplomats expressed their somber regrets at the untimely murder of colleagues.
But this time, the killing struck closer to home. U.N. Undersecretary General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, who served until recently as the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, was a close personal friend and colleague of Stevens at the U.S. State Department.
The U.N. Security Council had played a vital role in shielding Benghazi's residents from certain slaughter at the hands of Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces. In a rare, brief show of unity, the Security Council authorized NATO to use air power against Libyan forces, a move that until led to Qaddafi's overthrow.
The U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the U.S. embassy in Cairo both came under attack from mobs that had allegedly become enraged over the circulation on the Internet of an inflammatory film produced by a man in California who claimed in an interview with the Associated Press that he was an Israeli filmmaker. (The AP has raised questions about his true nationality) But U.S. officials said that the attack in Benghazi may have been planned by extremists inspired by al Qaeda, according to a report in the Washington Post.
After the attack, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked the question that was on the minds of many of the U.N.'s Western diplomats. "How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?" she said. "This question reflects just how complicated and, at times, how confounding the world can be."
Speaking outside the U.N. Security Council, Libya's U.N. ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi conveyed his own government's condolences to the United States and the families of the dead, saying that Stevens had "been a real friend for the Libyan people."
Stevens, he added, "was with us during our fighting against the dictator Qaddafi and his forces. He was very brave in staying in Benghazi."
Dabbashi was at a lost to explain how the ambassador of a government that had supported Libya's liberation could become a target. "As you know, we have to state the reality: the authority of the government is still not covering the whole territory of Libya."
Dabbashi said his government would take "the necessary measures to contain those people ... and bring them to justice." He said that as many as 10 Libyan security forces were either injured or killed during the attack.
Inside the council, the mood was somber as Rosemary di Carlo, the U.S. deputy permanent representative, read out an account of the attack and requested support for a U.S.-drafted Security Council statement condemning the attack. Russia and other delegations that have frequently criticized U.S. backed initiatives on Libya were silent, according to a council diplomat. "Even the hardliners were subdued," the diplomat said. "I think nobody wanted to be in Rosemary's shoes, talking about the death of a colleague."
"The senselessness of if was striking," the official said. "This was not a war; these were people who had committed themselves to the well being of the Libyan people."
But the attack also raised concern among other diplomats about the future of their efforts in Libya, and the persistent diplomatic risks. In April, unidentified attackers targeted a convoy transporting the U.N.'s special representative, Ian Martin, with a roadside bomb. In June, armed groups attacked a British convoy carrying Britain's ambassador to Libya, Dominic Asquith. The British envoy was not armed, but two British bodyguards were injured.
For now, it remains unclear what impact, if any, Stevens' death will have on the future of the U.N. mission in Libya. "It is too soon to assess the implications for our future posture -- our policy has been to keep a low profile," said one senior U.N. official. Restoring stability in Libya, the official said, will depend on the effectiveness of the country's new prime minister, Mustafa Abu Shagour, who won by a slim margin in a vote today. "The events in Benghazi showed everybody that there are still a lot of challenges out there," said the council diplomat.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Sudan's bid for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council sputtered out today as Khartoum informed the African Union that it "is no longer interested in taking up one of the vacancies available...."
The Sudanese withdrawal follows a behind-the scenes campaign by the United States, Western governments, and human rights organizations that culminated with a recent decision by Kenya to contest the Sudanese nomination.
Sudan's decision came on the day that a coalition of human rights groups, organized by U.N. Watch, appointed actress and activist Mia Farrow to lead a campaign to block Sudan's candidacy. But officials said Sudan had already signaled to its African colleagues earlier in the week that it was considering pulling out of the race to avoid the prospect of an embarrassing loss.
Earlier today, Farrow appealed to people to sign a petition urging Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to "Stop Sudan's Election to the UN Human Rights Council." After the announcement, she tweeted: "Petition worked!" Farrow tweeted "TY[Thank You] all who signed."
The African Union had selected Ethiopia, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Sudan, Sierra Leone, to run unchallenged for five African seats available on the 47-member rights council in November. The nomination of Sudan, which is led by President Omar al-Bashir, who has been charged by the International Criminal Court with orchestrating a campaign of genocide in Darfur, outraged human rights groups.
The United States and other critics of Sudan quietly encouraged Kenya to declare its intention to enter the race, forcing the Africans into a competitive race. Kenya agreed. After Sudan confirmed on Thursday its plan to withdraw its nomination, human rights group praised the decision.
"The worst human rights offenders are slowly recognizing they are not welcome on the Human Rights Council. Sudan joins notorious rights violators Syria, Iran, Belarus, Sri Lanka and Azerbaijan whose hypocritical aspirations to sit on the council have properly led to embarrassing retreat," said Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch, which furnished a copy of Sudan's withdrawal letter.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.