Rwandan authorities have harassed a number of local employees assisting a U.N. Security Council panel that has accused the Rwandan government of sponsoring and directing a military insurgency in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, in violation of U.N. sanctions, according to confidential documents obtained by Turtle Bay.
Steve Hege, the coordinator of the U.N. Security Council Group of Experts, informed the Security Council in a confidential October 12 letter that it harbored "very serious security concerns for the physical safety of its drivers and interpreters who have already been the victims of harassment by Rwandan officials." The letter, which was obtained by Turtle Bay, expressed concern that the U.N. "group's wide network of collaborators and sources remain extremely vulnerable to targeted retaliatory attacks."
The warning to the council comes as the Group of Experts concluded a second hard-hitting report documenting Rwanda's role in organizing a group of Congolese military mutineers -- known as M23 -- that has been fighting government forces in eastern Congo.
The report, which has not been published but has been read by Turtle Bay, claims that Rwandan Defense Minister James Kabarebe exercises effective command over the mutineers, and that the Rwandan government continues to direct M23's military operations in eastern Congo. The report, which was first reported Tuesday by Reuters, also accuses Uganda of providing military, financial, and political support to the movement.
Rwanda's foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, issued a statement today accusing the panel's coordinator of engaging in a "political campaign" aimed at smearing the country's reputation, and said that "Rwanda will not allow itself to be dragged any deeper into this farce by responding to the Group's far-fetched but fact-free assertions."
"Every UN member-state should find cause for concern that these expert panels feel entitled to treat sovereign states in such an appalling fashion," she said. "Who are these unelected, unaccountable individuals to abuse the authority granted to them by the UN to pursue political vendettas and deny even basic procedural fairness to a country like Rwanda, a member of the United Nations for half a century?"
A diplomat at the Rwandan mission, Olivier Nduhungirehe, denied that Rwanda is targeting individuals supporting the U.N. probe.
The revelations are coming to light just as a U.N. General Assembly vote today endorsed Rwandan's nomination to serve a two-year term (from 2013-2014) as one of the Security Council's five newly elected temporary members. Security Council diplomats have said that it is unlikely that the 15-nation council would impose penalties in response to the report's findings.
The Group of Experts first accused Rwanda of aiding the M23 mutineers back in June, prompting the United States, Britain, and other European government to freeze military assistance and other aid.
But the latest report says that Rwanda has ignored appeals from the United States and other outside powers to cease its support for the mutineers.
For instance, the report charges that Rwandan and Ugandan forces participated in an M23 military offensive in July, extending the group's territorial gains in the region of Rutushuru. "Rwanda's support to M23 and other armed groups has continued in all categories of arms embargo violations previously documented by the Group. Rwandan officials exercise overall command and strategic planning for M23," the report charged.
The expert group called on Rwanda and Uganda to "cease" its violation of the U.N. arms embargo on all foreign forces and rebels groups in eastern Congo and to submit regular reports to the Security Council on the steps it is taking to halt the M23's activities. It also calls on governments to reconsider future military assistance to Rwanda and Uganda if they continue to back the mutineers.
France, meanwhile, introduced a draft statement calling on Rwanda and Uganda to halt their support for M23. The draft, which is still being negotiated, condemns the M23 and governments providing it with "external support" -- a veiled reference to Rwanda and Uganda. It also calls on all states, including Rwanda and Uganda, to step up cooperation with the Group of Experts, and demands that they "ensure the safety of its members, and unhindered and immediate access, in particular, to persons, documents and sites."
The expert panel has accused the Rwandan military leadership of carrying out a "wide ranging" campaign to convince Congolese business leaders, politicians, and former rebels to join the M23 mutiny with the aim of prosecuting "a new war to obtain a secession of both Kivus," the eastern Congolese provinces that share a border and ethnic and historical ties to Rwanda.
The M23 movement was founded by a former Congolese mutineer, Laurent Nkunda, but the current mutiny was led by Bosco Ntaganda, a former Congolese rebel and accused war criminal who was appointed a general in the Congolese army, known as the FARDC, in 2005 as part of a peace deal, and Col. Sultani Makenga, another former rebel who defected from the army. But, according to the expert panel, they took their orders from the Rwandan military chief.
"The government of Rwanda (GoR) continues to violate the arms embargo through direct military support to M23 rebels, facilitation of recruitment, encouragement and facilitation of FARDC desertions, as well as the provision of arms and ammunition, intelligence, and political advise," the report states. "M23s de facto chain of command includes General Bosco Ntaganda and culminates with the Rwandan Minister of Defense General James Kabarebe."
"Senior government of Uganda (GoU) officials have also provided support to M23 in the form of direct troop reinforcements in DRC territory, munitions deliveries, technical assistance, joint planning, political advice, and facilitation of external relations. Units of the Ugandan People's Defense Forces (UPDF) and the Rwandan Defence Forces (RDF) jointly supported M23 in a series of attacks in July, 2012, to take over the major towns of Rutuhuru territory."
Efforts to reach the Ugandan mission to the United Nations were unsuccessful. But the Ugandan government characterized the report as "rubbish, rubbish, rubbish," according to Reuters.
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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."
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Senior U.N. officials may inspire awe, or perhaps fear, among the thousands of U.N. worker bees whose fate they control.
But they would hardly be considered international rock stars.
At least, that is, until now.
Singing Norwegian brothers, Bard and Jegard Ylvisaker, who host the variety show Ylvis, have produced a highly polished music video that sings the praises of the U.N.'s former emergency relief coordinator, Jan Egeland of Norway, who is currently serving as Human Rights Watch's European chief.
OK, actually, it makes fun of him.
"Gray Hair. Glasses. Suitcase. Humble. Clever. And constantly working for peace," Jegard sings in the parody homage. "Uganda. Congo. And the Oslo treaty plan. Oh my God, what a plan.'
"When hand grenades are flying there's just one man you can trust," he wails. "When there's war and all is hell; send in Jan Egeland. The United Nations superhero man."
Let's have a look:
P.S. Ban Ki-moon, if you are reading this maybe you need to talk to Psy and bring a little Gangnam Style to Turtle Bay.
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The U.N. Security Council tonight issued a statement that "condemned in the strongest terms" Syria's shelling of the Turkish town of Akcakale -- an attack that killed five civilians, all of them women and children -- and voiced their "sincerest condolences" to the Turkish government and the families of the victims.
The statement, which was backed by Russia and China, marked the first time that the U.N. Security Council has weighed in on the situation in Syria since July 19, when Moscow and Beijing vetoed a resolution threatening sanctions against Damascus.
The 15-nation council reached agreement on the text after more than a day of intensive talks that pitted Russia against the United States and other Western powers.
Moscow, which has served as Damascus's closest ally on the council, sought to strip out any language that directly accused the Syrian government of responsibility for the mortar strike, which triggered a series of retaliatory artillery strikes against Syrian targets.
Russia's U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin also sought to remove any characterization of the Syrian action that might serve as a trigger for deeper Security Council involvement in a crisis. Churkin also sought to include a provision calling on both Syria and Turkey to show restraint.
The final statement was softened somewhat to accommodate some of Russia's concerns. For instance, it does not directly conclude that Syria's action constituted a threat to internationalpeace and stability.
Instead, it merely noted that the mortar attack "highlighted the grave impact the crisis in Syria has on its neighbors and on regional peace and stability." The statement demands that "such violations of international law stop immediately and are not repeated," but while it issues a call for restraint it doesn't specify who needs to exercise restraint.
Churkin, meanwhile, said he would be back in the council tomorrow to press for a condemnation of a deadly bomb attack in Syria's second city, Aleppo, which targeted a Syrian officers club and left more than 30 people dead.
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The Syrian government sought to avert an escalating military confrontation with Turkey today, offering its condolences to Turkey and the families affected by the Wednesday mortar attack, which killed a woman and four children, according to a Syrian letter to the U.N. Security Council and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. But Damascus stopped short of apologizing for the cross border strike against Turkey, a NATO member, and it offered no condolences to the Turkish government, reflecting the ongoing tensions between the two states.
The Syrian gesture came as NATO members convened in Brussels to consider a response to the cross border attack on a member of the organization, and Ban voiced growing concern over the risk that the confrontation might have on regional peace.
Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari, informed the U.N. in the letter that Syrian authorities "are seriously investigating" the circumstances leading up to the Wednesday mortar strike in the town of Akcakale. Regarding Turkey's military response, Jaafari noted that two Syrian Army officers were injured in a succession of artillery attacks on installations just south of the Syrian village of Tal Abiad. The Turkish barrage began at 7 p.m., stopped around midnight, and then resumed until 7 a.m. this morning. Syria did not respond to the Turkish fire.
Relations between Syria and Turkey, once close allies, have deteriorated since President Bashar al-Assad launched a violent crackdown on anti-government protesters in March 2011. The Turkish government has permitted anti-government insurgents to move weapons, cash, and other supplies across the Turkish border to rebel fighters seeking the overthrow of the Syrian regime.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League special representative on Syria has been working with the two sides to ease tensions. The U.N. chief, meanwhile, expressed "alarm" over the standoff, saying, through his spokesman, that "the risks of regional conflict and the threat to international peace and security are also increasing."
Brahimi said the two governments should handle the border incidents "wisely, rationally and responsibly" and asked the Turkish government to cooperate with the Syrian authorities to impose greater controls over the border between the two countries.
Jaafari responded, saying that Syria conducts its relations with its neighbors with "rules of good neighborliness and respect for national sovereignties of states" but it expects its neighbors to "respect the national sovereignty of Syria, and to cooperate in border control and prevention of the infiltration of insurgents and terrorists."
The Syrian missive was transmitted to the council as it is weighing its response to the Syrian mortar attack. Last night, Azerbaijan introduced a statement condemning the Syrian strike as a threat to international peace and security and demanding that such acts stop immediately. But Russia, which has claimed that Syrian authorities have assured Moscow that the cross-border attack was an accident, blocked the statement's approval, and offered a competing statement that would also condemn the Syria strike but which called on both sides to "exercise restraint and avoid military clashes that could lead to further escalations."
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The Syrian war spilled over into the Turkish borderlands today, as Syrian mortars killed at least five civilians in the border town of Akcakale, triggering Turkish reprisal strikes against artillery targets inside Syria, according to U.N. and Turkish officials.
The skirmish has fueled concern among top U.N. and Arab officials that a widening conflict may become a deadly reality. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon pleaded with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutolgu in a phone conversation to maintain open lines of communications with Syrian authorities to prevent the exchange from escalating into a more violence cross-border conflict.
"The secretary general has repeatedly warned that the ongoing militarization of the conflict in Syria is leading to tragic results for the Syrian people," according a statement from Ban's office. "Today's incidents, where firing from Syria struck a Turkish town, again demonstrated how Syria's conflict is threatening not only the security of the Syrian people but increasingly causing harm to its neighbors."
Ahmad Fawzi, the spokesman for the U.N.-Arab League special representative to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said today's cross border violence underscored a chief concern of the U.N. trouble shooter and his predecessor, Kofi Annan . "This is an example of what we have been warning about for seven to eight months," he said. "If this explodes, it will be catastrophic for the region and by its very nature will involve the proxy powers."
The cross-border incidents came as a devastating bomb attack in Aleppo marked a deadly new phase in the struggle for Syria's second largest city, highlighting the increasing escalation of violence by opposition forces in a conflict that began as a popular, and largely peaceful, anti-government uprising.
A series of four explosions -- apparently targeting a Syrian officers club and other pro-regime facilities in the Sadallah Jabri Square -- killed more than 30 people and turned a historic section of the city into rubble.
Syrian government officials denounced the bombing as a ruthless terrorist attack by suicide bombers that failed to discriminate against military and civilian victims. But supporters of the resistance said that attacks were against a military target.
"This is a legitimate target, nobody can get into that area without a military ID," said Radwan Ziadeh, a U.S.-based member of the opposition Syrian National Council. "All the people killed there they belong to the Assad regime's army."
The United Nations and Western human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, stopped short of condemning the attack, saying they did not have sufficient information to determine whether the attack targeted legitimate military installations, or whether they had recklessly endangered civilians in a heavily populated urban area.
But Fawzi said that the scale of the violence is growing daily. "The escalation is happening on both sides and we have said time and time again that the government should stop using heavy weapons, including helicopter gun-ships, and the opposition should equally cease attacks," he said. "But we are not equating the two because it is obvious the government is stronger and we ask that the government first stop and that the opposition, in turn, stop."
Human Rights Watch emergencies researcher Ole Solvang, who returned from a visit to Aleppo in August, voiced concern about abuses by opposition forces. Solvang said his group documented more than a dozen cases of extra-judicial executions of individuals suspected of serving in pro-government militias, known as Shabhiha, and the widespread use of a torture method -- the falaqa -- which involves the beating on soles of the feet, and which "seemed to be condoned from above." But he said the overall insurgent strategy was aimed more at gaining control of the town rather than sowing terror.
Solvang said the resistance in Aleppo was deeply riven between more moderate pro-democracy groups and Islamists engaged in a "battle of ideas or visions" about the future of Syria. But he said he saw little evidence to support a major role by foreign jihadists.
Joshua Landis, an expert on Syria, said today's attack does not reflect an isolated attack by a fringe extremist group, but a strike in a broader rebel strategy aimed at destroying the sense of security and stability of Syria's urban elites in the power centers of Damascus and Aleppo in exchange for their political support.
"This is all about these two major cities: they are the prize, they are the golden goose," said Landis. "The rebels have to take that away: the goal is to take away the security and stability from every Syrian because then, this government will offer them nothing."
"The trouble is the government cannot allow the rebels to just take the cities; it can't play that game because it will lose," he said. "What that means is that the cities are going to be destroyed. They are going to be turned into Berlin; they are going to be firebombed by both sides."
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The U.N. Security Council has killed plans for a high-level visit to Afghanistan later this month amid concerns that conditions are too dangerous, according to Security Council diplomats familiar with the planned trip.
Germany -- which oversees Afghanistan issues in the Security Council -- had proposed leading a U.N. Security Council delegation to the country from October 20-24. But the U.N. warned that the trip -- which included a side stop in Yemen -- would run risks.
The decision to put off the trip followed a closed door Security Council briefing this afternoon by the U.N.'s top security official -- U.N. Undersecretary General Gregory Starr, who was updating the 15-nation council on security for the U.N.'s far flung missions.
Starr -- a former security chief for the U.S. State Department -- said it would be better to postpone the visit. But some diplomats said a visit would be unlikely later because the onset of winter would make travel far more difficult.
At the request of Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations -- who also favored postponing the trip -- attendance at today's meeting was restricted to the top Security Council ambassadors.
One council diplomat said that the official reason for the trip's cancellation is that no dates had ever been set and the consensus was that it would be better to postpone until the new year. But the "obvious reason," the official said, "is that you don't want to go to these dangerous places when there are threats."
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An Iranian cameraman traveling with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during his recent visit to the United Nations General Assembly defected last week and is now seeking political asylum in the United States, the man's lawyer, Paul O'Dwyer told Turtle Bay.
Hassan Gol Khanban, a long time videographer for the Iranian National News Agency who frequently traveled with the president, went into hiding after the Iranian delegation left New York on Thursday, according to O'Dwyer.
O'Dwyer said Khanban's wife and two young children have also left Iran for a third country and that he is trying to arrange for them to come to the United States.
"He is seeking political asylum on behalf of his belief, and obviously the fact that he defected makes him automatically an enemy of the regime," O'Dwyer said. He was "opposed to how the regime treats people, the level of repression that exists there."
Khanban traveled to the United States on a G-2 diplomatic visa to cover Ahmadinejad's eighth and final visit as president to New York, where he delivered a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, conducted multiple interviews, and gave a press conference with American journalists, editors, and publishers.
The defection provided an embarrassing bookend to a visit in which Ahmadinejad had sought to portray Iran's success in challenging America's dominance on the world stage. In a series of statements, the Iranian leader denounced the United States as a belligerent warmonger that had wreaked havoc in the Middle East with its military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. But there was no indication that Khanban would turn out to be a major intelligence coup for the United States.
O'Dwyer said that his client was sufficiently "trusted" by the government to be allowed to travel with the president but that he wasn't "like a policy maker or a policy advisor. He was there to shoot video."
O'Dwyer also said that his client had differed with the Iranian delegation during the visits when they instructed him to "film stuff" that wasn't apparently related to his journalistic duties. O'Dwyer was unwilling to provide any specifics on what he was asked to film.
However, it appears that Khanban may have already been planning to flee Iran before he arrived -- he had arranged for his family to get out of the country before he filed his claim for asylum, which was first reported by the New York Daily News.
O'Dwyer declined to say where Khanban, who is in his forties, is staying "out of concern for his safety.
The Iranian mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment.
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U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon today voiced alarm about Syria's possible use of chemical weapons in the course of the country's worsening civil war, saying that Syria's resort to this arsenal would constitute an "outrageous crime with dire consequences."
Speaking in advance of a high-level U.N. meeting on the prohibition of chemical weapons, the U.N. chief today reiterated his call -- first delivered weeks ago in a letter to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- on Damascus to ensure the "safety and security" of the country's chemical weapons stockpile.
The remarks came three days after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta expressed concern that a small portion of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal may have gone missing during a transfer from one the country's secured chemical weapons sites. Panetta said Syrian authorities had moved the chemical weapons to ensure their security at a time when the government is battling a major armed insurgency. Panetta said that while most of Syria's chemical weapons sites were secure, he could not confirm whether the materials transferred by the government had fallen into the hands of opposition forces or Iranian forces inside the country.
It remained unclear whether Ban was simply expressing concern about the humanitarian fallout of a chemical weapons attack against Syrians or foreign governments opposed to the Assad regime, or whether he was referring to the potential of a withering military response by the United States or other Western governments in the event that the Syrian government used such weapons.
The remarks came just hours after the U.N. chief met behind closed doors with Syria's foreign minister, Walid Mouallem. Following the meeting, which took place on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly debate, Ban scolded Mouallem for his government's "killings, massive destruction, human rights abuses, and aerial and artillery attacks" against Syrian populations, and urged him to "show compassion" to Syrians who "were being killed everyday," according to a statement from Ban's office.
In a speech this afternoon before the U.N. General Assembly, Mouallem made no reference to Syria's chemical weapons program. Instead, he delivered a combative speech, accusing the United States and its allies of abetting terrorism in Syria and blatantly interfering in the country's internal affairs. He also claimed that the Syrian refugee crisis has been "fabricated" by armed groups seeking to exploit their plight to raise funds for their cause.
The Syrian diplomat's speech offered a starkly different account of realities on the ground in Syria than that described by Syrian activists, foreign journalists, the United Nations, and most Arab and Western governments, who have blamed the Syrian armed forces, and government-backed militias, for driving more than 300,000 refugees into neighboring countries, including Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey.
In contrast, Moallem urged Syrian refugees to make the trek back to Syria, promising that his government would "guarantee their safe return and their precious lives away from inhuman conditions they suffer in these camps."
"While my government is working hard to meet the basic needs of citizens who have been forced by the violence of the armed groups to flee their homes, some have sought to fabricate a refugee crisis through inciting armed groups to intimidate Syrian civilians in border areas and forcing them to flee to neighboring countries," Mouallem said. "There they are either accommodated in military training camps, or in what resembles places of detention, aimed arid or rugged regions, and exploit their plight to get aid spent mostly on goals that have no relevance to humanitarian objectives."
One Security Council diplomat dismissed the Syrian official's speech as "predictable" but "totally out of touch with reality. His points on the refugee crisis were breathtaking in their cynicism. How can he blame others for the displacement of millions while the Syrian regime is using indiscriminate shelling, aircraft and helicopter gun-ships and militia to terrorize civilians."
Mouallem acknowledged no role by Damascus in precipitating the violence in Syria, which began 19 months ago with a violent government crackdown on peaceful anti-government protesters. The conflict has since evolved into a civil war that has left more than 30,000 dead, driven 1 million from their homes and force hundreds of thousands more to flee to safety.
Mouallem told foreign delegates in New York on the final day of the U.N. General Assembly debate that his government's policies enjoy the backing of the Syrian people, and that President Assad's government remains committed to a "constructive dialogue" with the opposition in "the making of the present and the future of Syria." "The bond is very strong in my country between state policies and the aspirations of the people," Mouallem said. He said the government is currently working with "patriotic components in the opposition to build a new and pluralistic Syria that responds to the aspirations of its people."
The Syrian diplomat said, however, that his country is the victim of a neocolonial scheme, organized by the United States and its European and Arab allies, and aimed at imposing "hegemony and domination" over Syria. He said that Western-backed sanctions -- which impose hardship on ordinary Syrians - were harming the people they are purporting to protect. And he accused the United States and Britain -- "who launched wars under the pretext of combating terrorism" -- of now supporting "terrorism in my country." Under the pretext of humanitarian interventions, he said the "drums of war are beaten, and sedition and unrest are spreading."
The U.S. mission to the United Nations did not respond to request for comment.
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So what does Iran get out of its chairmanship of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a Cold War-era body that has frequently been dismissed by Western pundits as a relic of a bygone era?
For one thing: a ready-made constituency of 120 countries -- many of them close U.S. allies like Chile, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore -- supporting Iranian policies on a range of issues, from its pursuit of nuclear self-sufficiency to efforts to rally international opposition to an Israeli strike against its nuclear facilities.
Iran's chairmanship of the body, which will last three years, is also undercutting efforts by the United States, European powers, and Israel to isolate the Iranian government, a fact that was driven home by the participation of key leaders, including U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Egyptian leader Mohamed Morsy, at the NAM summit in Tehran last month. (To be fair, Ban used the occasion to criticize the Iranians, while Morsy blasted Iran's close ally, Syria, for repressing his people.)
Today, Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, delivered a statement on behalf of the NAM at a high-level U.N. meeting on countering nuclear terrorism that underscored states' rights to nuclear power, proposed the creation of a treaty prohibiting military strikes on nuclear energy programs, and demanded Israel "renounce possession of nuclear weapons" and submit its secret, undeclared, program to monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The speech repeated many longstanding positions by the Non-Aligned Movement, which exercises considerable influence over U.N. debates.
But its delivery by a high-ranking Iranian official lent additional weight to Tehran's case that efforts by the United States and other world powers to rein in Iran's nuclear program could be used against others. Iran, which is the target of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding it cease its enrichment of uranium, claims its nuclear activities are allowed by the landmark Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The IAEA, which is responsible for monitoring compliance with the NPT, has expressed serious concerns about Iran's nuclear activities, citing a pattern of withholding critical evidence of their nuclear activities and failing to fully cooperate with efforts to investigate reports that it is pursuing nuclear weapons. The agency recently raised concern that Iran has sharply stepped up enrichment activities in breach of Security Council resolutions.
Salehi's speech also posed an indirect challenge to Israel to hold off any military attack on Iran's nuclear program, which Tehran claims is used solely for the production of electricity, but which Israel insists is a cover for a nuclear weapons program.
"NAM reaffirms the inviolability of peaceful nuclear activities and that any attack or threat of attack against peaceful nuclear facilities -- in operation or under construction -- constitutes a grave violation of international law, and purposes of the UN Charter and regulations of the IAEA," Salehi told the New York gathering. "NAM recognizes the urgent need for a comprehensive multilaterally negotiated instrument prohibiting attacks or threat of attacks on nuclear facilities devoted to peaceful uses of nuclear energy."
The statement also included a broadside against the U.N. Security Council, which has adopted numerous resolutions demanding Iran halt nuclear activities that are not expressively prohibited by the NPT. The Iranian gambit plays on broader resentment at the United Nations against the Security Council, which has been accused of overreaching and seeking to impose constraints on countries nuclear energy programs that are permissible under international treaty.
"NAM underlines the need to ensure that any action by the Security Council does not undermine the UN Charter and existing multilateral treaties on weapons of mass destruction," said Salehi.
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The Masked Avengers, the notorious Canadian radio disc jockey duo, have struck again. Their latest victim: U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
The comic team of Marc-Antoine Audette and Sebastien Trudel is best known for tricking former GOP vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, three years ago into participating in a six-minute conversation with a fake French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Yesterday, in the middle of the U.N. General Assembly session, the duo placed a call to Ban, claiming that Canadian President Stephen Harper wanted to talk to him. Ban's staff pulled him out of a meeting to take the call.
Speaking in halting French, the fake Harper apologizes for not showing up for this week's General Assembly debate, explaining that he had another priority to attend to: "I was combing my hair with crazy glue," he explains in French.
"Excusé moi," Ban responds, sounding confused. "Is this Prime Minister Harper speaking?" he asks in French.
"Yes, hello, Stephen Harper speaking," the fake Harper responds, speaking now in English. "How are you Mr. Secretary General?"
"How are you, how are you?" Ban answers, sounding relieved to be speaking in English. But his confusion returns when the fake Harper appeals to the world's top diplomat to use his diplomatic skills to convince the head of the National Hockey League, Gary Bettman, to return the Quebec Nordiques (who were sold to Denver and have become the Colorado Avalanche) to Canada.
"Actually, I was calling you because the U.N. has to give the support to the return of the les Nordiques," Fake Harper explains.
"Pardon?" Ban asks.
"I was calling about the most important subject for us," Fake Harper says.
"Oh, I do not understand what you are saying," Ban says. "About what?"
"It's about the hockey team the Quebec Nordiques you have to speak to Gary Bettman to bring them back. Now it's a big situation."
A U.N. spokesman, Farhan Haq, confirmed that "the Secretary General did receive such a call and he very quickly realized it was a prank. He took it in the way it was intended -- as a joke."
"In this week of all weeks there are so many calls coming in from all over the world and from many delegations, and it was perhaps not the best use of his time, but these things can happen," Haq said. "It's obviously not supposed to happen and we will be listening out extra hard in future for poor French accents on the line from Canada."
In 2008, Audette posed as French President Nicolas Sarkozy and got a call through to Sarah Palin, just days before the U.S. election. Speaking in an exaggerated French accident, saying she would make a great president one day, and that he shared a passion with the governor for hunting.
"I just love killing those animals. Mmm, mmm, take away life, that is so fun," Fake Sarkozy told her.
"You know, I look forward to working with you and getting to meet you personally and your beautiful wife," Palin told Fake Sarkozy, referring to Carla Bruni. "Oh my goodness, you've added a lot of energy to your country with that beautiful family of yours."
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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.
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For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu it wasn't enough just to reiterate an impassioned call for the United States and other U.N. governments to impose a red line on Iran's nuclear program.
He literally drew it -- right before the assembled world leaders -- on a crude bomb chart that looked like it came directly out Wile E. Coyote's comic book arsenal.
In a speech that briefly glossed over the Middle East process, Netanyahu made his most detailed and impassioned case for confronting Iran, clarifying that the threshold for a military strike should be set at the point Iran produces enough highly enriched uranium to produce a nuclear weapon.
"Nothing could imperil our future more than the arming of Iran with nuclear weapons," Netanyahu told the gathering of foreign leaders. "At this late hour, the only way to peacefully prevent Iran from getting an atomic bomb is by placing a clear red line on Iran's nuclear weapons programs.
"Red lines don't lead to war; red lines prevent war," he added. "I believe faced with clear red line Iran will back down."
The Israeli prime minister has been pressing President Barack Obama for weeks to specify a precise stage in Iran's enrichment of uranium that would trigger a military reaction. Obama has repeatedly said that the United States would not permit Iran to possess nuclear weapons, but he has refused to commit to a specific red line in order to preserve response flexibility.
In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, Obama said that while it remains committed to resolving the nuclear dispute with Iran "through diplomacy and we believe that there is still time and space to do so. But that time is not unlimited."
"Make no mistake: A nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained." Obama said. "It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy. It risks triggering a nuclear arms race in the region, and the unraveling of the Non-Proliferation Treaty."
Netanyahu thanked Obama for his statement acknowledging an Iranian nuclear weapons program could not be contained, and he said he recognized that international sanctions were inflicting serious pain on the regime.
But he said that more than a decade of sanctions and diplomacy have failed to halt Iran's nuclear ambitions, and that it would be irresponsible to place one's faith in cautious estimates from Western intelligence agencies that there is sufficient time to stop the Iranians from acquiring the bomb. "Our intelligence agents are not fool-proof," he said.
Netanyahu, who spoke shortly after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, devoted little attention to the peace process, simply saying the "libelous speeches" or "unilateral declarations of statehood" before the U.N. General Assembly would not further the cause of peace.
The Palestinian leader was the clear favorite in the General Assembly, receiving a standing ovation for a speech that denounced a wave of anti-Palestinian attacks by Jewish settlers, and claimed that Israeli policies were undermining the ability of the Palestinian National Authority to function -- threatening its ultimate collapse.
But his bid for international recognition of statehood was scaled back from a year ago.
"We will continue our efforts to obtain full membership for Palestine at the United Nations," he said. But for now, he said his government has "begun intensive consultations with various regional organizations and member states aimed at having
the General Assembly adopt a resolution considering the State of Palestine as a non-member state of the United Nations during this session."
"We do not seek to delegitimize an existing state -- that is Israel; but rather
to assert the state that must be realized -- that is Palestine."
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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."
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Burma's President Thein Sein paid tribute to the country's most famous democratic dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi, saying he wanted to congratulate her for the awards she has received during a 17-day tour the United States, including the Congressional Gold Medal.
"As a Myanmar citizen, I would like to congratulate her for the honors she has received in this country in recognition of her efforts for democracy," he told the U.N. General Assembly gathering this morning.
The tribute underscored the dramatic shift under way in Burma and in the country's leader -- a former general from the military junta that had once annulled an election that would have made Suu Kyi the country's leader, and then held her under house arrest for nearly two decades.
Dressed in a business suit, Sein said that his government is making "progress on the democratic path" and that it would require forbearance from the international community. The remarks come one day after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton informed Myanmar that the United States was easing a series of sanctions on the country's exports to the United States.
"I am well aware of the fact that Myanmar's democratic transformation process would be a complex and delicate one that requires patience," he said. "Myanmar is now ushering in a new era.... It is...necessary that Myanmar should be viewed from a different and new perspective."
He also addressed international concerns about a wave of violence against the country's minority groups, referring to an upswing in ethnic violence in Rakhine. "In this connection, I would like to mention in the first place that the people inhabiting in our country, regardless of race, religion, and gender, have the right to live in peace and security."
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Libya's president Mohammed Magarief today contradicted American claims that the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate was a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Islamic film, telling NBC's Anne Curry in an interview broadcast this morning.
"It has nothing to do with this attack," said Magarief, noting that the assailants used rocket propelled grenades and mortar fire in the attack. "It's a preplanned act of terrorism against American citizens."
The remarks came more than one week after Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, argued that the attack, which killed four American nationals, including U.S. ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, had been triggered by popular anger from Libyan Muslims offended by the film.
"Our current best assessment, based on the information that we have at present, is that, in fact, what this began as, it was a spontaneous -- not a premeditated -- response to what had transpired in Cairo," Rice told ABC's "This Week." "We believe that folks in Benghazi, a small number of people came to the...consulate...to replicate that sort of challenge that was posed in Cairo. And then as that unfolded, it seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons."
Rice's account has come under scrutiny in the following days as the administration's explanation for the attack evolved.
Republicans have criticized the account of the attack, suggesting that the Obama administration is seeking to mask the facts. They have seized on the fact that President Barack Obama has not characterized the attack as an act of terror, even though other senior administration officials have, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
"It is troubling that President Obama refuses to call the Libya attacks on the anniversary of 9/11 an act of terror," said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. "For weeks President Obama and his administration have failed to acknowledge the facts behind the Libya attack."
Asked to explain the discrepancy, Rice's office referred Turtle Bay to White House spokesman Jay Carney's reaction to the Libyan president claim that the U,S. consulate had been targeted in a pre-planned terror attack. "Over the course of the past two weeks, this administration has provided as much information as it has been able to."
"It continues to be the case that we provided information based on what we know -- not based on speculation but based on what we know -- acknowledging that we are continuing an investigation that will undoubtedly uncover more facts, and as more facts and more details emerge we will, when appropriate, provide them to you."
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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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Foreign leaders don't get to vote for American presidents.
But they do have favorites in a race that that will select the next leader of the free world. And their preferences are often pretty transparent.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a long time friend of Gov. Mitt Romney, has fueled suspicions that he prefers his old Boston pal following his clashes with top Obama administration officials over Iran's nuclear program. "I am sure BB [Benjamin Netanyahu] does look also on the U.S. election and hope Mitt Romney wins," Barak Ravid, Haaretz's diplomatic reporter told me in an interview on Twitter. "They have the same talking points."
But France, whose former foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, defended Bill Clinton at U.N. headquarters in the darkest hours of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, is squarely in the Democrat's camp.
Asked whom he would prefer as America's new president, France's Socialist President Francois Hollande paused, surveyed the U.N. press gallery and declared his intention to dodge the question. Well, not really.
"I'm careful to say nothing because you can imagine if a Socialist were to support one of the two candidates that might be to his detriment," he said. Asked if he was offended that Obama had slighted the assembled world leaders by not scheduling a single bilateral meeting, Hollande sprang to his defense.
"No, I think everybody fully understood that Barack Obama is carrying out his campaign and he came to make a speech, one which met the expectations of the United States," he added. "At present we shall have other meetings. What's important is being able to see him after November, I suppose."
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Qatar's emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani urged Arab nations in a General Assembly speech to form a political and military coalition to intervene in Syria to stop the bloodshed, as a first step towards guaranteeing a peaceful political transition.
"The situation in Syria has reached an unacceptable phase," he told the gathering. "Hundreds of innocent Syrians are killed everyday by the fire of a regime that does not hesitate to use all sort of weapons against its people."
The Qatari leader said the intervention force could be modeled on a Syrian-led Arab Deterrence Force that was established by the Arab League in Lebanon in 1976, and which provided regional backing to Syria's military occupation of Lebanon.
We "have used all available means to get Syria out of the cycle of killing but that was in vain," Al Thani said. "In view of this, I think it is better for the Arab countries themselves to interfere out of their national, humanitarian, political and military duties and do what is necessary to stop the bloodshed in Syria and the killing of innocent people and their displacement in order to guarantee a peaceful transition of power in Syria."
He urged countries "that believe in the cause of the Syrian people to contribute to the provision of all sorts of support to this people until it gains its legitimate rights."
It was hard to measure how serious the Qatari proposal was and doubtful that an Arab coalition could be mustered to go to war with one of the region's most powerful armies, particularly one with strong backing of Iran and Russia. The announcement came hours after the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appealed to governments to stay out of the conflict and support the efforts of his special representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, to resolve the crisis through diplomatic means.
"We must stop the violence and flows of arms to both sides, and set in motion a Syrian-led transition as soon as possible," Ban said. Those remarks appeared targeted at the warring parties -- but also foreign backers, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who have reportedly armed the insurgents, and Russia and Iran, who are backing the government.
However, Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim al-Thani told Christiane Amanpour this week that Qatar is not arming the rebels, but that it support a new approach -- which he called Plan B -- that would impose save havens in Syria and that "I believe there are a lot of Arab countries who will participate. And there are also European countries who will participate."
It remained unclear how much support the Arabs can expect from the West, but Bin Jassim expressed hope that Washington might support the plan if Obama wins the election. American officials have been chilly to the idea. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told me last week: "I'm not of the view that this is a circumstance in which external military intervention is wise for the United States or others."
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The United Nations was a Twitter wasteland when I first started tweeting back in January 2010. Virtually no governments were on Twitter and only a handful of journalists. The main Twitter handle promoting U.N. activities was run by some guy in England who ran an automatic feed of the U.N. Secretary General's daily schedule. Today, confidential briefings of the U.N. Security Council routinely travel through the Twittersphere well before the diplomats emerge from their meetings to address the press. One American diplomat tweets the occasional closed-door budget meetings, while big-power press aides sometimes vie with one another to fire off a 140-character announcement of an important diplomatic development. And dozens of U.N.-based reporters tweet all manner of news -- highlights of Ban Ki-moon's briefings (and amusements). How else would I know that Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai visited the United Nations on Monday?
Twitter, of course, has also become the go-to destination for the wider community of academics, advocates, diplomats and, I suspect, spooks eager to scour reporters' posts of confidential documents. Once upon a time, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., declared to a press aide that urged her to join Twitter: "I don't believe in foreign policy by Haiku." Now, she does. So, as the U.N. General Assembly kicks off today, we decided to assemble a list of the best U.N. tweeters to help you track the week's news.
The big Western powers -- the United States, Britain, France, and Germany -- have held a lock on Twitter diplomacy, using the medium far more ambitiously than their peers. Diplomats at other U.N. missions, including Iran and Russia, have a few key Twitter accounts, but they don't say much. Russia, for instance, leaves most of its tweeting to the Foreign Ministry -- @MFA_Russia -- or a handful of senior officials, including Vice Premier Dimitri Rogozin -- @DRogozin -- and Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov -- @Ggatilov -- a former U.N. official himself.
@ambassadorrice: In terms of sheer numbers, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is the reigning queen of Turtle Bay's Twitter community. Lots of newsy tweets on Security Council business, and the occasional holiday tweet from the Taj Mahal or some other far-off destination.
@USJoe_UN: Joe Torsella, the
U.S. ambassador for management and reform, grouses about U.N. inefficiencies
and occasionally discloses the contents of budget discussions. (He should have more
followers.) A typical tweet:
#UN supply chain makes uphill
battle for these go-getters. Inventory here still entered BY HAND. Party like
@franceonu: I used to taunt the French diplomats in the days they had fewer followers than me. They blew past me over the past year and haven't looked back. This is among the most ambitious of the official government Twitter feeds, using quizzes and videos of French diplomats explaining the inner working of U.N. committees to lure followers.
@UKUN_NewYork: The official British Twitter handle is a solid source of statements from New York and London, particularly on Africa and Middle East matters before the United Nations.
@GermanyUN: Germany has it's Twitter feed shrewdly, pushing quotes from the German ambassador, Peter Wittig. It also provides useful links to Germany Foreign Ministry statements on a wide range of issues, including Syria and Iran.
@israelinUN: The Israeli mission to the U.N. came a bit late to the game, but they provide a useful stream of breaking Israeli news. (I believe this is the first place I noticed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's statement criticizing Ban Ki-moon for visiting Tehran.)
THE UNITED NATIONS:
The United Nations may have been a bit slow to get up and running. But it has produced a number of useful Twitter handles, offering photos from the U.N. stable of high-quality photographers @unphotos, documents from the @unlibrary and videos and press conference from @UNWebcast or @UN_TV
Expectations for President Barack Obama's U.N. speech this morning could not have been lower.
Entering the last leg of his presidential reelection campaign, pundits predicted a speech aimed directly at the American electorate: He would denounce Iran, denounce Syria, uphold American commitments to Israel's security, and head straight for the door.
The president did indeed high-tail it after the speech. But he left behind one of his most affecting speeches on America's relations with the Arab world since Cairo -- and it was targeted directly at the world leaders sitting in the U.N. General Assembly audience. "Understand that America will never retreat from the world," he said, noting that the flurry of anti-American protests that followed the circulation of a video mocking the Prophet Mohammed would not drive the United States from the Middle East.
Obama opened his speech by drawing a contrast between the fallen Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens -- who was killed in an attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, "the city he helped to save" -- and the forces of extremism who murdered him, three other American nationals, and an even larger number of Libyan security guards which offer nothing to the millions of Muslims seeking a better life and better leaders. "Chris Stevens embodied the best of America. Like his fellow Foreign Service officers, he built bridges across oceans and cultures," Obama said. "Burning an American flag will do nothing to educate a child.... Attacking an embassy won't create a single job."
The broader point of Obama's speech was to drive home the message that the region's new Islamic leaders, including Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, must move more assertively to stem the tide of extremism or see it swallow up their achievements. In a remark that appeared directed at Morsy, Obama said the United States "has not, and will not, seek to dictate the outcome of democratic transitions abroad, and we do not expect other nations to agree with us on every issue."
In an interview with the New York Times on the eve of the U.N. General Assembly, Morsy had sharply criticized America's role in the Middle East, saying that U.S. support for generations of military dictatorships, and its backing of Israel, had fueled anti-American sentiment in the region.
Obama responded today that all leaders have "an obligation" to "speak out forcefully against violence and extremism" and marginalize those who "use hatred of America or the West, or Israel as a central principle of politics."
"A politics based only on anger -- one based on dividing the world between us and them -- not only sets back international cooperation, it ultimately undermines those who tolerate it," he added. "The impulse towards intolerance and violence may initially be focused on the West, but over time it cannot be contained."
Obama also took aim at the history of violent reactions across the Muslim world to offensive portrayals of Islam in the West, saying that while "we understand people take offense to this video ... there is no speech that justifies mindless violence."
"There is no video that justifies an attack on an embassy," said Obama. "There is no slander that provides an excuse for people to burn a restaurant in Lebanon, or destroy a school in Tunis, or cause death and destruction in Pakistan," he added. "Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs."
"I expect that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will defend their right to do so," he said. "We do so not because we support hateful speech, but because our founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views, and practice their own faith may be threatened."
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President Barack Obama opened his U.N. General Assembly speech by eulogizing the fallen American ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, who was killed in an attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, "the city he helped to save."
Obama portrayed Stevens as an American patriot who "embodied the best of America," an Arabic speaker who gained a deep understanding of the countries where he served and built bridges with foreign cultures. He died, Obama said, while helping to set up new culture center and hospital in Benghazi.
The U.S. president tried to draw a contrast between the optimism represented by Stevens life with that of the forces of extremism simmering beneath the surface in the Middle East. "We must reaffirm," he said, that our future will be determined by people like Christopher Stevens, not his killers."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch and stay tuned to Turtle Bay for breaking news from the General Assembly.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, the first national speaker at the U.N. General Assembly today, delivered a broadside against the United States, blasting Washington for subjecting “Dear Cuba” to an economic embargo that has “chastised” its people for too long. “Time has come to end this anachronistic” measure that enjoys virtually no support in the U.N. community, she said in remarks that veered from her official distributed speech. Rousseff also took aim at the West for its colonial past and for its failure to stop a wave of Islamophobia.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch and stay tuned to Turtle Bay for breaking news from the General Assembly.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon opened today's U.N. General Assembly debate by urging the Arab Spring's new leaders -- from Egypt to Libya -- to "make decisive breaks with the past" and appealing to the U.N. membership to prevent Syria's worsening civil war from engulfing the region in sectarian strife.
"We need to look no further than this room to see expression of the thirst for progress," Ban said. "A large number of you are here for the first time -- new leaders, installed by new voices, and expected to make decisive breaks with the past. Your people want to see results in real time; now, not the distant future."
Ban appealed to the gathering to "put an end to impunity for international crimes in Syria and elsewhere" and warned that conditions in Syria were worsening each day, saying that steps need to be taken to "stop the violence and flows of arms to both sides" in order to "set in motion a Syrian led transition as soon as possible."
"The crisis is no longer limited to Syria; it is a regional calamity with global ramifications," he said. "It is the duty of our generation to put an end to impunity for international crimes, in Syria and elsewhere."
Ban also touched on a set of other global concerns, including poverty, climate change, and the scarcity of essential resources to sustain a growing world population that surpassed 7 billion people, saying the United Nations and world leaders need "to bolster safety nets."
"Action on climate change remains a major piece of unfinished business," he said. "Our use of resources threatens the planet's limits. Ecosystems are reaching the breaking point. The world's best science tells us we must change course before it is too late."
The U.N. chief also touched on a series of other security challenges, expressing concern about ongoing violence in Afghanistan and the stalled Middle East peace process. "After decades of harsh occupation and humiliating restriction in almost every aspect of their lives, the Palestinians must be able to realize their right to a viable state of their own," he said, while also making clear that "Israel must be able to live in peace and security from threats and rockets.
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The world's annual diplomatic gab-fest -- the U.N. General Assembly debate -- opens on Manhattan's East River tomorrow against a backdrop of deepening civil war in Syria, nuclear-tipped confrontation between Israel and Iran, and nagging questions about whether a recent wave of anti-American protests was a blip or portends darker diplomatic days ahead for the United States and its Western partners.
The U.N. session will offer world leaders an opportunity to take stock of the health of the democratic movement, known as the Arab Spring, that has swept through North Africa and the Middle East over the past year and a half, toppling dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and dealing an existential challenge to the Assad dynasty's decades-long rule in Syria.
For the first time, the region's old guard, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will cross paths in the U.N. corridors with the region's new leaders, including Egypt's Mohamed Morsy and Libya's Mohammed Magarief.
As world leaders from 193 countries converged on midtown, swelling the East Side's most luxurious hotels, the U.N. and Arab League representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, offered a downbeat assessment of the prospects for peace in Syria, while the Iranian leader took swipes at Israel in a series of interviews with American editors and journalists, accusing the Jewish state of trying to bully America into a war with Iran. Israel's U.N. delegations, meanwhile, staged a walk-out from a high-level U.N. meeting on the rule of law after Ahmadinejad denounced the Zionist state.
In a rare snub to visiting dignitaries, President Barack Obama will avoid conducting the customary bilateral meetings with foreign counterparts, appearing only briefly at U.N. headquarters to deliver his address to the General Assembly. From there, he'll head crosstown, where he will speak at the Clinton Global Initiative conference hosted by former President Bill Clinton. He will, however, host a dinner for visiting leaders at the Waldorf Astoria hotel on Tuesday night.
"The president just in recent weeks has had intensive consultations with leaders in the region, with the leaders of Turkey, of Egypt, of Israel, of Yemen, of Libya, of Afghanistan, and that process will continue," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. "It is a simple fact that when you're president of the United States, your responsibility as commander-in-chief never ends and you are constantly engaged in matters of foreign affairs and national security. And that's what this president is doing."
The Iranian leader sought to set the tone for this year's debate, launching his final appearance in New York as Iran's president with a series of interviews with American columnists, editors, and reporters. At a breakfast this morning, Ahmadinejad said that Israel, which he refers to only as "Zionists," was bullying the Americans into a clash with Iran. "Is it the Zionists who must tell the United States government what to do, such as form a red line on Iran's nuclear issue and the United States government must make such vital decision under the influence of the Zionists?"
Israel's U.N. ambassador, Ron Prosor, meanwhile, walked out of a high-level U.N. meeting promoting the rule of law. "Ahmadinejad heads a state that is the most systematic violator of international law and the world's greatest sponsor of terrorism," he said in a statement after the walkout. "It is shameful, disgraceful, and absurd that his voice was part of today's U.N. discussion on the rule of law."
Netanyahu, who is scheduled to speak on Thursday, is expected to deliver a combative speech denouncing Iran's nuclear activities, pressing the U.N. membership to confront the regime before it obtains a nuclear weapon.
Behind the nuclear standoff, there were competing narratives over the state of America's relations with the Middle East's new leaders.
The new Libyan leader's attendance at the U.N. underscored the prospects for improving America's standing in the region. And Magarief, the head of Libya's national congress, today struck a conciliatory note, apologizing directly to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday for his government's failure to halt the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate, which left four Americans dead, including the U.S. ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. "What happened on 11th of September towards these U.S. citizens does not express in any way the conscience of the Libyan people, their aspirations, their hopes or their sentiments towards the American people," Magarief told Clinton today, according to Reuters. "Of course we ... express our great readiness to cooperate with the U.S. government in order to cooperate in the investigation and bring those perpetrators to justice."
Morsy, meanwhile, was not interested in offering comfort to America, which he suggested bore the burden of improving its poor standing in the region. Egypt's Islamist leader defended his government's tepid first response to the protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo, telling the New York Times that "we took our time" to avoid a violent reaction by the protesters, but later dealt "decisively" with them. "We can never condone this violence but we need to deal with the situation wisely,' Morsy said.
The Egyptian leader also told the New York Times that the United States had earned its bad reputation in the Middle East by backing generations of military dictatorships and Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. "Successive American administrations essentially purchased with American taxpayer money the dislike, if not the hatred, of the peoples of the region."
But the issue weighing most heavily over the U.N. membership was Syria, where nearly a year's worth of Arab League and U.N.-based diplomacy has failed to halt a brutal government crackdown on anti-regime protesters. The crisis in Syria, which began as a peaceful popular call for change, has deteriorated into all-out civil war, with thousands dead, mostly civilians killed by government forces, and the emergence of extremist elements seeking to take advantage of the chaos.
In advance of the General Assembly debate, U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi provided the U.N. Security Council with a downbeat assessment of peace prospects in Syria, saying that he would be powerless to avert worsening civil and sectarian strife as long as the U.N.'s biggest powers, including the United States and Russia, remained divided.
The veteran U.N. trouble-shooter also sent a strong message to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, saying that his promise to bring government-sponsored reforms would not be enough to stem the spreading violence in Syria. "I think there is no disagreement that the situation is extremely bad and getting worse," Brahimi told reporters after the meeting. "I refuse to believe that reasonable people do not see that you cannot go backward; you cannot go back to the Syria of the past. I think I told everybody in Damascus and elsewhere that reform is not enough. What is needed is change."
Despite the grim report, Brahimi offered his first sliver of hope, saying that while there are "no prospects" for diplomatic progress in the immediate future, his travel to the region had given him cause to believe "we will find an opening in the not too distant future."
After the meeting, Brahimi told reporters that the situation in Syria "is extremely difficult. There is a stalemate; there is no prospect for today or tomorrow to move forward." But he also raised a hopeful note over the prospects for future progress, saying that a recent visit to the region, including a meeting with Assad, had convinced him that "I think we will find and opening in the not too distant future."
Brahimi's remarks, which followed the former Algerian diplomat's first briefing to the Security Council on Syria, reflected a growing consensus among U.N. officials and some Arab leaders that the only hope of easing the crisis would require some sort of agreement between Russia and the West on a process for political transition in Syria. "If I do not represent the entire council I am nothing," Brahimi told reporters. "I need to be seen to represent a united council and a united League of Arab States and I think the Security Council understands that perfectly well."
Brahimi said he would use the occasion of the General Assembly debate to consult with key regional and international leaders in New York before returning to the region. For the time being, Brahimi said he had no fixed peace plan for Syria, but that "I do have a few ideas" that he intends to discuss with key foreign powers in New York this week.
The U.N. Security Council has remained at a stalemate on Syria since July, when Russia and China cast vetoes -- their third on Syria -- on a resolution that outlined a blueprint for the establishment of a national transition government, which threatened sanctions against Damascus if it failed to halt its attacks on residential areas.
Behind closed doors, Brahimi told the 15-nation Security Council that he saw few signs that either Assad or the fragmented armed opposition are currently prepared to engage in substantive peace talks, according to council diplomat present.
"On the side of the government, the aim is still to keep, or return to, the old Syria, even if much is said about dialogue and reform," Brahimi told the council. "Popular demand for change, not reforms, is hardly recognized by the government. The crisis is seen mainly as a foreign conspiracy engineered from abroad."
The Syrian government, Brahimi told the Security Council, continues to dismiss the role of popular unrest in fueling anti-government sentiment, arguing that Damascus is the victim of a foreign conspiracy, and that its troops are up against as many as 5,000 foreign fighters. The armed opposition, meanwhile, maintains the current rebellion is the result of four decades of state-terror against the people.
"They say there is no turning back," Brahimi told the council. "Indeed, it bears repeating that the solution to Syria's problems demands a clean break with the past."
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President Barack Obama has placed multilateralism and the United Nations at the forefront of his foreign policy.
But he's just not that into it right now.
Earlier this year, Obama rebuffed a request by Ban Ki-moon to attend the international U.N. Summit on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro. And next week, Obama will give short shrift to world leaders converging on midtown Manhattan for the annual diplo-talk fest that is called the U.N. General Debate and what most were hoping would allow a face-to-face meeting with the American president. As it turns out, they'll barely get a glimpse of him.
In what is scheduled to be one of the briefest presidential appearances at a U.N. General Assembly debate in recent memory, Obama will sit for a brief meeting with Ban, deliver his speech before foreign leaders, then head cross-town to speak at former President Bill Clinton's Global Initiative forum (a couple of hours after Governor Mitt Romney addresses the gathering), according to U.S. officials.
All those world leaders -- including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had been eager to press Obama to take a more confrontational approach to Iran; Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, who infuriated Washington over his tepid first reaction to attacks on the U.S. embassy in Cairo; and French President Francois Hollande, who had expected to meet with Obama -- will have to wait for another opportunity.
"Historically, Obama has never liked big multilateral summits (he hates meeting EU leaders for example) so U.N. is no fun for him," Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at NYU's Center for International Coalition, said in a Twitter interview on Wednesday with Turtle Bay. "Once the big speech is complete, Obama doesn't get any electoral benefits from gabbing with other leaders."
He may have an election just around the corner, but Obama's U.N. diplomatic drive-by comes as the United States is confronted with a series of American national security crises abroad, including a major political, military, and human rights calamity in Syria.
Last week, U.S. embassies around the Islamic world were the subject of violent demonstrations, including an armed assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that resulted in the death of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Obama's reticence to engage with world leaders in New York reflects a president in full campaign mode, keen to avoid any new foreign policy commitments or controversies, particularly on Iran, where the president is seeking to deflect increasingly vocal demands by Netanyahu to take a more confrontational approach to Iran's nuclear program.
Gowan said he anticipated Obama's U.N. speech to target American voters, offering tough condemnation of Iran, sharp criticism of Russia and China for their failure to support sanctions against Syria, but few new commitments. "What he won't do is make any big promises for second about climate change or international law," said Gowan.
Edward Luck, a U.N. historian and dean of the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego, said such a brief appearance by a president of the United States, the host government of the United Nations, was extremely rare and political unwise.
"Such a sudden exit would be unusual, to say the least. I'm not sure, but it occurs to me that Reagan may not have come to the opening of the GA every year," Luck said. I recall Bush being quite active on the bilaterals, which matter for domestic political purposes as well as for international ones."
"The General Debate is a great place to look presidential, something that should benefit an incumbent in a close race. Even if Obama decided not to take any bilaterals, so that they would not appear to be politicized by the election, it would not be good form to skip the [secretary general's] lunch. That could easily be seen as a snub, when both hope to need to work with each other over the next four years. "
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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.
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U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay delivered a speech on Syria to the Human Rights Council that reiterated her persistent protests about the Syrian government's massive abuses during the country's 18-month upheaval.
But the latest message was perhaps more striking for the increasingly harsh tone she has taken in enumerating the crimes of the armed opposition, including summary executions.
Syria's opposition forces, she warned, "should be under no illusion that they will be immune from prosecution" for their alleged crimes. "I urge them to make a strenuous effort to halt the deterioration in their conduct, and adhere to fundamental norms of international law."
The warning comes weeks after a U.N. Commission of Inquiry concluded that both the Syrian government and opposition fighters have committed war crimes and other serious violations of the laws of war. Pillay reiterated her call for the U.N. Security Council to authorize an inquiry into Syrian crimes by the International Criminal Court.
"I would like to remind states that they unanimously agreed, at the 2005 World Summit, that each state is obliged to protect populations from crimes against humanity, war crimes and other international crimes," she said. "The international community must assume its responsibilities and act in unison to prevent violations."
Pillay said the greatest responsibility for the violence in Syria lies with the government, which continues to fire heavy weapons into densely populated residential neighborhoods and is increasingly mounting "indiscriminate attacks" attacks in urban areas by helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft. "In a further alarming development, last week, it was reported that houses in parts of Damascus were being bulldozed -- an act that may well amount to collective punishment and constitute a war crime or a crime against humanity," she said.
Pillay said that human rights abuses across the country "are rampant, and have reached the point where mass killings, summary executions and torture are the norm."
"As we speak," she added, "civilians, including children, are continuing to be injured and killed in Syria virtually every hour of every day."
Pillay said she was "deeply shocked" by reports of a mass killing last month in the town of Darya, on the outskirts of Damascus, where Syrian security forces are suspected of killing hundreds as part of a counterinsurgency operation aimed at rooting rebels from the capital.
While Pillay didn't directly accuse Syria of responsibility, she noted that government forces played a role in an earlier massacre in the town of Al Houla. "Information is also being gathered about other reported mass killings and summary executions, including some carried out by opposition forces," she said.
In her strongest criticism to date of the fragmented insurgency, Pillay said anti-government forces have also adopted a number of government tactics, including the posting of snipers who target civilians. She also faulted the combatants' unnamed military backers for exacerbating the conflict, and urged them to stop supplying the two sides with ammunition.
"As time has passed, opposition forces have also been increasingly implicated in kidnapping and abductions, including of foreigners perceived as being government supporters," she said. "The undoubted climb in the number of human rights violations attributed to the opposition forces, in addition to the ever increasing brutality by the authorities and their Shabbiha allies, is pat of the rapid downward spiral that is gripping Syria and on the international level, increasing the sense of deep foreboding, frustration, and impotence about where this conflict is heading."
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The U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and his predecessor, Kofi Annan, have toiled in the cause of peace in Syria this year. So it's perhaps not a surprise that they would be nominated for an international peace prize. But this is one award they will not likely be bragging about if they win.
"It's not like you would campaign for this," quipped one U.N. official. "At least I hope no one is campaigning for this."
The organizers of the Confucius Peace Prize this weekend announced the nomination of the U.N. luminaries, along with Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and several others for a prize that awarded last year to Russian President Vladimir Putin -- in recognition of his opposition to the NATO-led bombing campaign in Libya, and which praised his military campaigns in Chechnya and Georgia.
"These were righteous wars," the Confucius Peace Prize committee co-founder and president, Qiao Damo, told the New York Times last year. Human rights advocates have differed, accusing Putin's forces and proxies of engaging in large-scale rights abuses.
The Chinese prize was established as Beijing's answer to the decision to honor Liu Xiaobo, the jailed pro-democracy dissident, in 2010 with the Nobel Peace Prize.
The selection of Liu infuriated the Chinese government, and prompted a Chinese banker, Liu Zhiqin, to propose that China establish the Confucius Peace Prize to counteract what he characterized as the West's anti-Chinese bias and to highlight China's "views on peace and human rights."
"The Nobel Peace prize won Liu Xiaobo while losing the trust of 1.3 billion Chinese people," Liu Zhiqin wrote in a November 2010 opinion piece. "They support a criminal while creating 1.3 billion 'dissidents' that are dissatisfied with the Nobel Committee, which is definitely a bad decision."
The effort to establish the prize's legitimacy has been rocky.
The committee's first award recipient, Lien Chan, a Taiwanese politician who promoted improved ties between China and Taiwan, did not show up at the awards ceremony, saying he'd never heard of the award, and even Putin's press office told reporters they didn't know much about the report, according to the New York Times.
The Chinese government meanwhile criticized the committee organizers for suggesting they were linked to the Chinese Ministry of Culture. But the prize lives on.
This year' s other nominees include Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Chinese social activist Wang Dingguo, Peking University Prof. Tang Yijie, Chinese rice researcher Yuan Longping.
A spokesman for Ban, Farhan Haq, said that any decision on whether Ban or Annan would accept the prize, if awarded, is hypothetical since the winner has not been announced. But he says that secretaries general frequently do accept awards on the behalf of the United Nations, donating cash awards to humanitarian causes.
But Ban and Annan still face stiff competition from another nominee -- China's choice to inherit the title of Tibet's spiritual leader, known as the 11th Panchen Lama, when the current Dalai Lama dies. The Dalai Lama anointed another heir back in 1995, a six-year old boy who was subsequently taken into "protective custody" by the Chinese government and never seen in public again.
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Some high-ranking U.N. officials hired in the wake of Ban Ki-moon's re-election have been receiving something of a hero's welcome at Turtle Bay, marked by the solicitousness one would associate with, say, a visit by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to a rural hemp factory.
The U.N. Department of Management (DM) and the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), issued internal memos last month detailing the debuts of their new bosses, undersecretary generals Yukio Takasu, a former veteran Japanese diplomat who once served on the U.N. Security Council, and Wu Hongbo, a former top official in China's foreign ministry, in their first three months of office, while taking note of the incredible pride their staff take in serving the United Nations.
The two memos -- which have the ring of 1950s corporate press releases or state propaganda -- contrast starkly with the scathing portrayals of dysfunction and leadership failures that dominate international media coverage of the United Nations. As readers of this blog may recall, Wu's predecessor, Sha Zukang, drew attention for his outrageous antics, including a drunken toast he delivered to the U.N. secretary general, capped by the line: "I know you never liked me Mr. Secretary-General -- well, I never liked you, either."
Instead, these latest memos paint of picture of an attentive U.N. executive class, driven by a hardy work ethic, and basking in the gratitude and admiration of their U.N. inferiors, who are touched that they have taken the time to talk to them.
"It's been 100 days since Mr. Yukio Takasu took office as undersecretary-general for management," reads the memo from his office. "With many big-ticket items on DM's to do list, Mr Takasu's tenure has been off to a labor-intensive start."
Indeed, as memo notes, Takasu has been juggling numerous priority projects, implementing new accounting standards, overseeing the return of U.N. staff to the renovated U.N. headquarters building, and managing the roll-out of the U.N.'s new automated management system, known as UMOJA, the Swahili word for unity, which has been plagued for years by administrative failures. (That last bit isn't mentioned in the memo).
But the memo does mention that Takasu toiled late into the night during marathon negotiations in Arusha, Tanzania, during his first month on the job over the terms of a new policy encouraging U.N. civil servants to change jobs more frequently. Within a week of his return to U.N. headquarters, he invited staff representatives to a luncheon to discuss the new agreement.
In his office's own telling, Takasu's underlings are clearly impressed by his debut.
"DM staff has come to know him as a knowledgeable and approachable boss who prepares thoroughly, draws on his detailed technical expertise, and makes ample time for extensive and frank strategy discussions with the projects teams," according to the memo. "He is known to listen carefully, as colleagues brief on their proposals, before raising tough questions to understand the risks and challenges that a project may face."
The reaction to Wu's first three weeks in office was no less effusive, according to a memo produced by his own staff.
Touring his new digs in the renovated U.N. headquarters built, Wu apparently took a break from his important responsibilities to talk to staffers, inquiring about their families, their job assignments, and solicited their opinions on the department's priorities, according to the DESA memo. He sought their views "about the move, the new floor plan, the lighting, the functionality of work stations and the overall environment," it noted.
The meet and greet was clearly a success.
"What began as a planned forty-five minute walk through turned into a three hour chat."
But of course, it wasn't all small talk, and Wu quickly turned his attention to weightier matters of building safety, examining plans of everything from the fire alarms to the placement of evacuation routes. He pressed his aide, Ivan Koulov, about forthcoming plans for emergency drills. "As it happened, a drill was organized on Thursday morning."
How's that for efficiency!
For their part, the U.N.'s unidentified staff members were impressed, praising the renovated Secretariat building, and "noting in particular how the floor plan allows for abundant daylight" as well as the ‘state-of-the-art energy saving controls, such as adjustable window blinds and temperature controls for air conditioning."
"As one staff member put it," the memo continues, "‘[w]orking in this new environment, I am even more proud to come to the office every day and make my contributions to the mission of the United Nations.'"
As for the future, Takasu vowed to pursue greater transparency in the U.N. financial report, and to meet the U.N. secretary general's vision of a "modern, global, unified and dynamic secretariat."
"It will be a challenge but I am confident that together, we can and will make it a success."
Well, if you believe your own memo it already is a success.
Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.