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."
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President Barack Obama on Tuesday delivered an impassioned defense of the values of freedom of expression, explaining that the appearance on the Internet of a controversial film mocking the Prophet Mohammed did not justify the violent attacks on American embassies throughout the region. It was aimed at persuading the Arab Spring's new leaders that criticism against Islam, however offensive, should not be answered with violence or prohibitions on speech. It didn't work.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, in his first speech to the U.N. General Assembly, said today that the "obscenities" contained in the film are "unacceptable" and that ‘we will not allow anyone to do this by word or deed." He proposed that the U.N. Security Council and the U.N. General Assembly consider steps to prevent similar religious offenses.
"There are limits to the freedom of expression especially if such freedom blasphemes the beliefs of nations and defames their figures," added Yemen's President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Over the past day and a half, speaker after speaker, from Indonesia to Qatar to Pakistan to Yemen called for the need to pass international legislation limiting the freedom of expression if it insults the religious beliefs or leaders. "Today, I would like to seize this opportunity to call on the United Nations and those of wisdom and reason and those who have the power of decisions at the international level to write internationally agreed upon laws, procedures, and controls to prevent insulting religious and faiths under any pretext and at the same time keep the right of man to know and express his opinion," said Qatar's emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani hours after Obama spoke.
Islamic countries have sought in the past to pursue the adoption of resolutions in the U.N. General Assembly and the Human Rights Council, and are likely to revive that effort in the months ahead. "A lot of these governments feel that they have to be seen doing something, even if it's a non-binding General Assembly resolution," said Bruce Jones, director of NYU's Center on International Cooperation. "It would mean precisely nothing, it would give you something to say without your domestic constituency, but it's a pretty poisonous thing."
The press for new international legislation over insults to religion marks a serious setback for American efforts to convince Islamic governments to curtail their quest to pass international blasphemy laws. It also underscored the challenges of addressing such a potentially divisive issue with a new generation of Middle East leaders whose politics are more deeply rooted in religion.
Last year, Washington marked a watershed moment in international negotiations over the issue when they convinced the Organization of the Islamic Conferences, and organization of Islamic governments, to drop a decade-long effort to adopt resolutions banning religious defamation.
"The U.N. membership finally overcame a battle that had dragged on for nearly a decade over whether insults to religion should be dealt with through bans on offensive speech," said Suzanne Nossel, president of Amnesty International, USA, who helped broker the deal when she was a senior official in the State Department. "It would be a huge step backward to devolve into opposing camps pitting concerns over freedom of expression against those of addressing religious intolerance. Offenses to religion can and must be addressed through more speech exposing such insults for what they are, not through prohibitions on speech."
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Former Liberian President Charles Taylor, testifying in his own war crimes trial today, said that the American conservative evangelist Pat Robertson was awarded a Liberian gold-mining concession in 1999 and subsequently offered to lobby the Bush administration to support his government.
The revelations came in the midst of a U.N.-backed trial of Taylor at The Hague on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity during Sierra Leone's 1990s civil war. Taylor is accused of directing a Sierra Leone rebel group, the United Revolutionary Front (RUF), in a campaign aimed at securing access to the country's diamond mines. The rebel movement stands accused of committing mass atrocities in the late 1990s in the West African country, including the mutilation of thousands of civilians.
The international prosecutors contend that Taylor offered concessions to Western individuals in exchange for lobbying work aimed at enhancing his image in the United States. The prosecution maintains that Taylor also spent $2.6 million on lobbying firms and public relations outfits in the hopes of influencing the policies of former President Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Under cross-examination, Taylor said that Robertson had volunteered to make Liberia's case before U.S. administration officials, and had spoken directly to President Bush about Taylor. He also confirmed that Robertson's company, Freedom Gold Limited, signed an agreement to exploit gold in southeastern Liberia, but that it never generated any profit.
"Mr. Taylor, indeed at one point you said that you can count on Pat Robertson to get Washington on your side," he was asked by the lead prosecution counsel, Col. Brenda Hollis, a former U.S. Air Force officer. Taylor replied: "I don't recall the exact words, but something to that effect."
A spokesman for Robertson, Chris Roslan, confirmed that Robertson was awarded a gold exploration concession by the Liberian government during the 1990s. But he said that there was "no quid pro quo" to provide the government with anything in return. Roslan said the company, Freedom Gold, is no longer in operation and has never found any gold.
"This concession was granted by the Liberian government to promote economic activity and alleviate the suffering of the people of Liberia following a terrible civil war," said Roslan, adding that Robertson had never met Taylor or paid him any money. "Freedom Gold accomplished this by employing some 200 Liberians in addition to providing humanitarian efforts including free medical care and installation of clean water wells for area residents."
Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.