Syria's security forces this morning blocked U.N. monitors from entering the village of Mazraat al-Qubeir to investigate claims that pro-government militias massacred dozens of civilians there, including women and children.
Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, the Norwegian officer who heads the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria, issued a statement from Damascus this morning saying that a team of U.N. observers were "being stopped at Syrian Army checkpoints and in some cases turned back." He said that U.N. patrols were also being stopped by civilians in the area.
The U.N. standoff with Syrian authorities came hours before special envoy, Kofi Annan, is scheduled to brief the U.N. General Assembly and the U.N. Security Council on his stalled efforts to end the violence and press the Syrian government and the opposition to begin talks on a political transition in the country.
It is likely to strengthen the case of the United States and its Western and Arab partners to increase political pressure on President Bashar al-Assad through the threat of stepped up sanctions. So far, China and Russia have vigorously opposed the imposition of U.N. sanctions on Damascus, saying the government and opposition need to come willingly to peace talks.
Frustrated by diplomatic deadlock in Damascus, Annan is expected to outline a plan to establish a new negotiating bloc -- or contact group -- including representatives of the United States, Britain, France, Iran, Russia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. The plan, which was detailed in a story by David Ignatius in the Washington Post, calls on the contact group to produce a transitional road map, including new presidential election, a parliamentary vote, and the drafting of a new constitution.
The debate over a new diplomatic strategy for Syria is unfolding at a time when reports of mass killings in Syria have been on the rise. On Wednesday, pro-government militias may have slaughtered dozens of civilians in the village of Mazraat al-Qubeir, according to unconfirmed reports. The report follows other large-scale killings, including the massacre of more than 100 people in the village of Houla on May 25.
The U.N. mission, Mood said, "dispatched U.N. observers to Mazraat al-Qubeir early Thursday morning, to verify reports of large-scale killings in the village. The observers have not yet been able to reach the village."
Mood said that residents in the area have also warned the U.N. mission that "the safety of our observers is at risk if we enter the village of Mazraat al-Qubeir." Mood said he is concerned the restriction on the observers movement "will impede our ability to monitor, observe and report" on the violence in Syria. But he vowed to press on, saying that "despite these challenges, the observers are still trying to get into the village to try to establish the facts on the ground."
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Last week, I asked a U.N. Security Council diplomat to give me a read out of China's reaction to the Houla massacre of 108 civilians during a closed-door session of the 15-nation council.
The diplomat paused for a moment, then confessed to being totally unable to recall what was said.
It was probably something about the need to pursue a peaceful outcome to the conflict and the importance of respecting sovereignty and letting the Syrians work it out themselves, the diplomat surmised. The same thing, in other words, that China says about virtually every crisis that comes before the Security Council.
China has largely weathered the Syrian diplomatic crisis, which has brought it into direct conflict with the Arab world, by drawing as little attention to itself as possible and letting Russia take the heat for sheltering President Bashar al-Assad from Security Council pressure.
But the effort to remain under the radar will be tested this month as China begins its month-long stint as Security Council president, a role that began Monday with an obligatory council presidency press conference that focused mostly on Syria.
In the briefing, China's U.N. envoy, Li Baodong, expressed concern about this "horrible thing" that happened in Houla, assured reporters that China has no "intention to protect anybody" in Damascus, and said the perpetrators, whomever they may be, need to be held accountable.
But when pressed about next steps in the council, Li quickly returned to script.
"We respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and also we respect the choices made by Syrian people," he told reporters. "What we really want to see is that the sovereignty of that country can be safeguarded and the destiny of that country should be in the hands of the people of Syria."
Translation: The Security Council should keep its meddling in Syria to a minimum, resist U.S. and European calls for the imposition of U.N. sanctions, and set aside more time for special envoy Kofi Annan to convince the Syrian government and the opposition to start talks on the country's future. "We have to line up behind Kofi Annan," Li said.
In February, China joined Russia for the second time in vetoing a resolution condemning Syria's crackdown on demonstrators. The resolution, which was backed by the Arab League, also demanded that the Syrian government begin negotiations on a transitional government.
China faced intense criticism in the Arab world in the weeks after the veto, prompting Li to undertake a high-level visit to the region to explain China's position in the council and try to sooth Arab leaders' anger, according to council diplomats. Still, the anger has focused most sharply on Russia, and the launch of Annan's mediation effort has provided Beijing with an opportunity to throw its weight behind a diplomatic initiative with solid backing from the Arab League.
But with the Annan plan on the ropes and China, alongside Russia, standing in the way of tougher Security Council action, it is going to be increasingly difficult for Beijing to continue to keep its head down and avoid damage to its diplomatic standing in the region.
"I think China's reputational damage in the region, so far, has been limited,' said Salman Shaikh, a former U.N. official who serves as director of the Brookings Doha Center. "In economic terms, its trading volumes continue to rise and will do so markedly over the next decade or so. Its relations with the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] are now strategic.... It is difficult to say how damage is being done with regard to Arab public opinion. While Chinese flags are being burned regularly in Syria, the rest of the Arab street, I believe, is focused on Russia. For now, at least, Moscow is deflecting serious Arab public wrath."
But Syria still poses a long-term challenge for Chinese policymakers, who desperately want the crisis to end peacefully but are at a loss about how to promote a workable alternative in the event that the Annan plan unravels. "There is also something deeper at play here," Shaikh added. "China has struggled to find a narrative that fits with the Arab Awakenings. The so-called ‘Chinese Model' of economic reform but not political opening -- which has been stressed by fallen Arab dictators in Tunisia and Egypt and now by President Assad in Syria -- no longer fits with the desires of Arabs who also want political change and democratic political systems. For this reason, China will continue to tread wearily."
Indeed, the crisis has caused increasing concern in Beijing, which is worried about its long-term relations with Persian Gulf sheikdoms that have rallied against Assad as part of a broader push to counter the influence of their prime regional rival and Damascus's chief ally, Iran.
American and European policymakers have tried to play on this very anxiety by pushing China to break ranks with Russia, which has deeper economic, military, and intelligence ties with Syria.
Back in April, "there was a glimmer of hope among Western diplomats that China could be persuaded to change positions," said Richard Gowan, an expert on the United Nations at New York University's Center on International Cooperation. "The reality is that the Chinese gain far more in terms of diplomatic tactics by staying closer to the Russians," particularly on Iran, which has become more vital to Beijing than it is to Moscow because of China's energy needs.
"If the Russians are worried about losing Chinese support on Syria, the Chinese are worried about losing Russian support on Iran," Gowan explained. "There is a sort of Chinese fear that if they were to make a shift on Syria the Russians would undercut them on Iran. The two powers are locked together in the face of Western criticism on both issues."
Indeed, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to increase their cooperation at the United Nations during a summit meeting in Beijing on Tuesday. "Both sides oppose external intervention into the Syrian situation and oppose regime change by force," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters earlier in the day.
For China and Russia, the best way to prevent those scenarios is to keep the Annan plan alive.
"What happened in Houla is definitely a setback for the effort to solve the crisis in Syria and it has caused colossal damage to Kofi Annan's mediation effort," said China's U.N. envoy, Li Baodong. "What should we do? Should we back off? Or should we surge ahead, march on? We have no choice. We have to support him."
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The massacre of at least 108 civilians in Al Houla, Syria, on Saturday, May 26, was in the words of Britain's U.N. envoy, Mark Lyall-Grant, a "game-changer" -- an act of brutality so heinous that it made the Syrian regime's reign of repression politically "unsustainable."
Indeed, the massacre of Syrian men, women, and children over the weekend -- which pushed the country's death toll to more than 12,000 -- has subjected Damascus to a rare rebuke from its chief patron, Russia, which joined the U.N. Security Council on Sunday in condemning Syria. It also prompted Western governments today to expel Syrian diplomats from their capitals and clamor, once again, for President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
"I have decided to expel the Syrian ambassador in Berlin," said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, noting that he was taking the decision in concert with other Western governments. "Even before the events in Al Houla, it was clear that Syria does not have a future under Assad. He must leave to make way for a peaceful transition in Syria."
But at the United Nations, it appeared that the game has not really changed all that much. Britain's U.N. envoy made it clear that joint special envoy Kofi Annan's 6-point plan -- a diplomatic blueprint for resolving the crisis through the promotion of political talks -- was still at the center of international efforts to resolve the crisis, offering the "best chance to resolve this crisis without excessive bloodshed."
The U.N. peacekeeping chief, Herve Ladsous of France, was more blunt. "There is no alternative, there is no other game, nobody has come out with any other plan."
The limits of international action came into sharper relief despite mounting evidence that Syria and its allies carried out Saturday's mass killing.
Ladsous presented reporters with the U.N.'s most direct accusation of Syrian government complicity in the killing. Speaking at a U.N. press conference organized to mark the International Day of U.N. Peacekeepers, Ladsous said that some of "the victims had been killed by artillery shells; now that points ever so clearly to the responsibility of the government. Only the government has heavy weapons, has tanks, has howitzers."
"There were also victims from individual weapons," he added, "victims from knife wounds and that of course is less clear but probably points the way to the Shabiha, you know the local [pro-government] militia."
In Damascus, meanwhile, Annan sought to turn up the heat on Assad, warning that Syria had reached a "tipping point" and that the "international community will soon be reviewing the situation."
"I appealed to him for bold steps now -- not tomorrow, now -- to create momentum for the implementation" of his peace plan, Annan said. "I appealed to the president ... to be bold for the Syrian people."
In Washington, U.S. officials sought to reinforce Annan's appeal through a threat of increased diplomatic pressure.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that the United States is reserving the right to go to the U.N. Security Council to press for a new resolution imposing international sanctions on Syria.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went even further, raising the possibility, of some form of military intervention in Syria if the killing continues. Dempsey however cautioned in an interview on Fox News that he would prefer to see increased political pressure on Syria. "You'll always find military leaders to be somewhat cautious about the use of force, because were' never entirely sure what comes out on the other side," Dempsey said. "But, that said, it may come to a point with Syria because of the atrocities."
But there were no signs that the U.N. Security Council was prepared to punish Syria further. While Russia joined in the council's condemnation of the Syrian massacre over the weekend, it has shown no inclination to impose penalties aimed at compelling Damascus to improve its behavior. In fact, just minutes after Russia supported the council's condemnation of Syria, its deputy U.N. envoy continued to defend the regime, saying it was "difficult to imagine" Damascus had massacred its own citizens and raised the prospect that the killing had been carried out by some illusive "third force."
Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, acknowledged that the Syrian government "bears the most responsibility" for the Al Houla massacre, but said that the Syrian opposition shared the blame. "Here we have a situation where both sides clearly had a hand in the fact that peaceful citizens were killed, including several dozen children," said Lavrov.
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U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon informed the U.N. Security Council on Friday afternoon that the U.N. monitoring mission in Syria will be up to full strength next week, but that Syrian forces continue to shell Syrian towns and that "most elements" of the U.N. six-point peace plan have yet to be implemented.
In a 13-page report to the U.N. Security Council, Ban said that the U.N. initiative -- shepherded by former Secretary General Kofi Annan -- offers the best hope of avoiding a full scale civil war. But he also voiced "grave concern" about the risks of deepening violence that may require the Security Council to consider the viability of U.N.'s ongoing presence in Syria.
Ban said that Annan, who is serving as the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria is preparing to travel to Damascus again in an effort to press President Bashar al-Assad, opposition leaders, and others to fulfill their obligations under his peace plan. Here are some key takeaways from Ban's report:
- The deployment of the military component [of the U.N. Supervision] Mission in Syria [UNSMIS] is essentially completed...
- There has been some reduction in the intensity of fighting in areas where UNSMIS has established its presence. The engagement of observers at local level appears to be having a calming effect.... That said, the overall level of violence in the country remains quite high.
- There continues to be daily violent incidents across the country, leading to a large number of deaths and injuries, albeit at a lower scale than immediately before 12 April 2012. The Syrian army has not ceased the use of or pulled back their heavy weapons in many areas.
- The size and complexity of the country, the range of potential violations, the differing local contexts, and the precarious security situation make it difficult to gain a full and complete picture of the situation on the ground.
- On several occasions, UNSMIS has heard the sound or seen evidence of shelling in population centres.
- The Government reportedly continues to receive military equipment and ammunition from other countries, and there are also reports of weapons being sent to the opposition forces.
- UNSMIS has reported that opposition representative relate an on-going fear of reprisals for talking to UNSMIS, which is a matter of serious concern.
- The frustration of the local population has taken the form of threats against UNSMIS observers, damage to vehicles and restrictions of movements by the crowd.
- There has been an increase in the number of bombings, most notably in Damascus, Hama, Aleppo, Idlib and Deir-Ez-Zor.... The sophistication and size of the bombs point to a high level of expertise which may indicate the involvement of established terrorist groups.
- There are continuing reports of a stepped up security crackdown by the authorities that has led to massive violations of human rights by Government forces and pro-Government militias.... There are also reports of human rights violations by the opposition, on a lesser scale, but including instances of arbitrary detention and summary executions...
- There are continuing reports that thousands of Syrians are being detained in a network of government-run facilities.... The pace and scale of access to, and release of, detainees is unacceptable...
- The obligation of the Syrian government to respect freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully is clearly not being observed.
- There is growing impatience with the status quo but also a lack of confidence in the possibility of genuine transformation....While many fear the implications of a further militarization of the conflict, some have doubts that peaceful change is possible.
- Most elements of the six-point plan have not been implemented.
- [The deepening violence and insecurity] is a source of grave concern, and underscores the need to carefully consider the United Nations presence and next steps...
- Encouragement to any party in Syria to pursue objectives through the use of violence is inconsistent with our common effort. Those who may contemplate supporting any side with weapons, military training or other military assistance, must reconsider such option to enable a sustained cessation of all forms of violence.
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The U.N. General Assembly today formally extended Navi Pillay's term as U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights for another two years.
But not before House Foreign Affairs Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY) fired off an angry letter calling on the Obama administration to "publicly and strongly oppose" Pillay's extension, saying she has been too soft on China, Syria, and other rights violators and has "repeatedly demonstrated bias against the State of Israel."
The request, contained in a letter to Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, came hours before the U.N. General Assembly decided to approve a recent recommendation by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to keep Pillay on the job for another two years.
The broadside by Pillay's congressional critics highlighted the displeasure with she's viewed by key backers of Israel in Washington.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, withheld any public statement on Pillay's extension. U.S. officials privately expressed disappointment with her handling of Israel, but noted that her performance has improved since the Arab Spring, particular with her harsh criticism of Syria. "Over the next two years we will continue to encourage High Commissioner Pillay to speak out on human rights violations wherever they may occur, and to address ongoing shortcomings in the Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights' works, " a U.S. official, who declined to speak on the record, told Turtle Bay.
In contrast, European governments offered a robust vote of confidence in Pillay. Britain's human rights minister, Jeremy Browne, welcomed Pillay's reappointment, saying the "United Kingdom strongly supports the role of the High Commissioner and her Office, who lead efforts to promote and protect human rights throughout the world. The struggle for human rights is continuous. The High Commissioner's role is critical and entails enormous responsibilities: helping prevent human rights violations wherever they occur, encouraging respect for human rights by all States, and strengthening the ability of the UN system as a whole to act.
Pillay also received the backing of Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. director of Human Rights Watch, who said, "Some of the attacks against Navi Pillay seem misguided and portray her record unfairly. While she could do more to raise the public profile of her office, she has been a key champion of human rights in the Arab spring, Ivory Coast and beyond."
A former judge in South Africa and on the International Criminal Court, Pillay was appointed the U.N.'s top human rights job in September 2008, serving out a four-year term that was scheduled to expire in the fall. Some U.N. officials said that Pillay had sought a second four-year term, but was rebuffed by Ban, while others said that she had asked Ban for only two, citing exhaustion with the job.
Pillay's office declined a request for comment.
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Since his first days in office, Ban Ki-moon has lived under the shadow of his predecessor, Kofi Annan, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was dubbed the "secular pope" and viewed by many U.N. boosters as the organization's moral compass.
Ban, by contrast, was the guy engaging in secret talks with unsavory dictators and autocrats in places like Burma, or holding his tongue in the face of atrocities in Sri Lanka and Sudan. But in Syria, Ban has abandoned his traditional preference for quiet diplomacy, berating the Syrian leadership in a series of scathing statements.
Ban recently told reporters at a luncheon that he had essentially stopped trying to speak directly to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, saying that he had effectively broken every promise he had made to the U.N. chief. Throughout the crisis, Ban has made it clear again and again that the Syria regime is to blame for stoking the country's popular unrest.
The U.N.'s diplomatic role in Syria has so far failed to bring an end to the Syrian crisis, and Ban's public criticism of Assad has likely limited to own ability to play a role in mediating the crisis. But it has nevertheless had the effect of elevating Ban's profile as a champion of popular rights while exposing Annan to criticism that he has placed unreasonable hopes in his ability to bring the Syrian leader into line.
Human Rights advocacy groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have recognized and applauded Ban for his public diplomacy on Syria, saying that he has finally come around to recognizing the value of using his position on the world stage as a bully pulpit, at least in the case of Syria.
"Many rights advocates despaired when they saw the statements he made defending states rights to the death penalty on his first day in office," Jose Luis Diaz, Amnesty International's U.N. representative told Turtle Bay. "But his statements on Syria, for example, or his position on the rights of LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender] persons, are good examples of the leadership we all expect from the U.N. secretary general. We'd like to see him use his moral and legal bully pulpit across the board. I hope that now that he's been given a second term he'll feel freer to speak out on all kinds of abuses, whoever commits or backs them"
Stephen Schlesinger, who has written extensively about the United Nations, last year described Ban's first term as "lackluster and ineffectual." But he said that Ban's public support for popular uprisings during the Arab Spring have "changed my mind about Ban. I think he has been far more outspoken and assertive in his role. He has started to sound like the old Kofi Annan."
Schlesinger and other U.N. experts, however, have defended Annan as exhibiting courage in accepting a meditation role carried little hope of success and posed threat to his reputation. And they say it is only natural that the role of diplomatic mediator requires making politically unpalatable comprises.
"It is the job of secretary general to be the bad cop and the mediator to be the good cop," said Bruce Jones, director of the Center for International Cooperation at New York University, and a former aide to Annan. "Kofi has put himself into a position that has some reputational risks. But I would find if unfortunate if Kofi gets blamed because every other solution is horrible one and this is a situation where you want to overturn every last pebble" to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
By most accounts, Annan has been dealt a pretty weak diplomatic hand.
U.S. and European-led diplomatic efforts to impose U.N. sanctions on Damascus to pressure the government to reform have been blocked by Russia and China. The United States, Britain, France, and Turkey appear unprepared to use force to drive Assad from power. Security Council diplomats, meanwhile appear increasingly concerned that Assad may weather the crisis, ensuring a central role in the country's future.
Still, Annan could hardly have been blind to the risks of deploying a small group of unarmed U.N. monitors in a conflict zone to enforce a cease-fire that few outsiders believe will stick. As the head of the U.N. peacekeeping department through much of the 1990s, Annan played a key role in running failed U.N. operations in Rwanda and Bosnia.
In November 1999, Annan published a review of the U.N. role in failing to stop mass killings outside the Bosnian village of Srebrenica, the worst atrocity in Europe since the Holocaust, that concluded that the U.N. leadership had to learn to resist the political pressure to send U.N. blue helmets into harms way when there was no peace to keep.
"Peacekeepers must never again be deployed into an environment in which there is no ceasefire or peace agreement," Annan wrote, criticizing the U.N. Security Council for not authorizing "more decisive and forceful action to prevent the unfolding horror."
"Many of the errors the United Nations made flowed from a single and no doubt well-intentioned effort: we tried to keep the peace and apply the rules of peacekeeping when there was no peace to keep," he added. "The cardinal lesson of Srebrenica is that a deliberate and systematic attempt to terrorize, expel or murder an entire people must be met decisively with all necessary means, and with the political will to carry the policy through to its logical conclusion."
The experience resulted in the U.N. turning to major world or regional powers to enforce peace in trouble spots like East Timor, where Australian soldiers imposed a cease-fire, and Sierra Leone, where British forces intervened to put down a rebellion. At the same time, the U.N. developed its own peacekeeping strategy -- known as "robust peacekeeping" -- which involved the limited use of lethal force in places like Congo and Haiti to put down challenges to its authority by armed groups.
Those lessons have not been applied in Syria, however, where the U.N.'s big powers have been unable to reach agreement on a plan to compel Assad to end a bloody crackdown that has left as many as 10,000 people dead. Annan, meanwhile, has openly opposed calls by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and a number of American lawmakers to arm Syria's divided opposition.
"The U.N. supervision mission is possibly the only remaining chance to stabilize the country," Annan told reporters in Geneva earlier this month. "And I'm sure I'm not telling you any secret when I tell you that there is a profound concern that the country could otherwise descend into full civil war and the implications of that are quite frightening. We cannot allow that to happen."
Indeed, if he succeeds in stopping that from happening, Ban may wind up back in Annan's shadow.
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In December 2011, Sudanese Gen. Mohamed Ahmed al-Dabi led an Arab League mission into Syria to monitor abuses during the country's popular uprising. But the mission quickly failed, hobbled by government impediments and its own monitors' inexperience.
But Gen. Dabi, it turned out, had plenty of experience hobbling international missions.
As a senior aide to president Omar al-Bashir, Dabi was assigned the task last year of shepherding a panel of U.N. experts charged with monitoring the enforcement of U.N. sanctions in Darfur, according to a leaked report by the panel.
The report, which was first published by Africa Confidential last month, provides a detailed account of how Dabi and his associates thwarted the U.N. Security Council panel's efforts to investigate abuses of a U.N. travel ban and arms embargo.
The panel arrived in Khartoum on November 23, 2011, and were immediately confronted by Dabi -- who served as the government's "focal point." Dabi criticized the panel and told them that they would be well advised to be "objective and transparent" in their work; meanwhile, assured the panel he would provide them all the support they needed.
It didn't turn out that way.
The experts requested multiple entry visas to facilitate their travels in the region. They were denied. In fact, Sudan introduced a new system in which the panel members' travel had to be approved by agents from Sudan's military intelligence bureau, impeding the "free movement of the panel and its ability to discharge its duties," according to the leaked report.
When the panel settled on a travel destination they were routinely told no.
They were denied permission to visit camps for the internally displaced at Kalma and Abu Shok, and prevented from traveling to other zones, including the areas around the towns of Shangil Tobaya, Golo, Rockero Thabit, Magarin, and Nortit.
"The panel wanted to visit some places, namely the Libya-Sudan border in Darfur, South Kordofan, and to observe Joint Sudan/Chad/CAR(Central African Republic) patrols along the western borders of Darfur, but the first two were refused and the third not arranged," according to the report. "As a result the panel was not able to carry out its mandate effectively."
The panel's requests to interview key officials were also met with refusals. They were barred from meeting with any commanders in the Sudan Armed Forces in Darfur, police officials, or the governor of South Kordofan.
"Similarly, the panel was refused permission to inspect military aircraft and other military assets kept in Darfur and to access flight logs maintained by the Sudanese Aviation Authority," the report added. "This affected the panel's ability to effectively monitor the arms embargo in relation to Darfur."
It remains unclear whether Dabi was involved in rejecting all the panel members' requests, and he apparently moved on to Syria shortly after taking on the role of government liaison to the U.N. panel. But it is clear that Dabi didn't always say no.
At one point, Dabi "had proposed to show to the panel weapons and vehicles" Sudan seized from an anti-government rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement. The materiel, according to Dabi, had been supplied by Libya.
But while the panel tried to take Dabi up on his offer, he never produced the goods.
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The U.N. secretary general's top lawyer today effectively killed off an initiative by five small U.N. member states to press the U.N. Security Council to allow greater outside scrutiny of its actions, and to agree not to cast a veto to halt efforts to stop mass killing.
The so-called S-5 (or Small-Five) -- Costa Rice, Jordan, Liechtenstein, Singapore, and Switzerland -- had called for a vote today on a resolution aimed at urging the council to reform its working methods. But the initiative failed after the U.N.'s lawyer, Patricia O'Brien, recommended that the resolution require the support of two-thirds of the U.N. membership, rather than the simple majority required for most U.N. General Assembly votes.
The legal recommendation marked a dramatic setback for efforts to press the Security Council's five most powerful members to grant the rest of the U.N. membership a greater say in its deliberations. It also appeared likely to diminish the U.N. General Assembly's authority, already limited, to make even non-binding recommendations to the Security Council.
In recent weeks, the council's five permanent members -- Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States -- launched an active campaign to press the resolution's sponsors to drop the initiative, arguing that the U.N. Charter empowered the Security Council to determine its own working methods. They were backed by another coalition of countries -- including Argentina, Italy, and Pakistan -- that feared the initiative might accelerate a Security Council reform process that could potential end with their regional rivals, Brazil, India, and Germany -- securing permanent seats in the Security Council.
Under the U.N. Charter, a General Assembly resolution requires the support of a simple majority, unless it involves particularly "important questions," like an amendment of the U.N. Charter, in which case it would require a vote by two-thirds of the General Assembly. But in 1998, the General Assembly passed a resolution declaring that the assembly would not adopt any resolution "on the question of equitable representation on and increase in the membership of the Security Council and related matters" without a two-thirds majority.
O'Brien ruled that the S-5 resolution fell into that category of "related matters" and recommended it would be "appropriate" for the U.N. General Assembly to adopt the resolution only with a two-thirds vote. Switzerland's U.N. ambassador, Paul Seger, acknowledging the sponsors lacked the two-thirds majority, withdrew the draft at the last moment in the face of "procedural and legalistic maneuvers" that threatened to "engulf" the entire U.N. membership.
Speaking on behalf of the S-5, Seger told the General Assembly membership today that the U.N. legal reasoning was "with all due respect, utterly wrong and biased."
"The decisions of the Security Council affect us all. We are obliged by the Charter to implement them. Is it too much to ask to be better informed about and more involved in the council's decision shaping and decision-making?" Seger said. "From what we have heard during the last days and hours it seems that the membership as a whole is not ready to follow us on this course of action, not yet at least."
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They are called the S-5, or the Small Five, a group of small and middling U.N. member states that have been informally meeting since 2005 to try and chip away at the unchecked powers of the P-5, the U.N.'s dominant, permanent five members of the Security Council.
And they are heading for a confrontation next week with the five big powers -- Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States -- over an initiative in the General Assembly aimed at pressing the P-5 to voluntarily cede some of their powers.
On May 16, the S-5 will press for a vote on a resolution before the U.N. General Assembly that calls on the veto wielding powers to refrain "from using a veto to block council action aimed at preventing or ending genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity." It also requests that in cases where a permanent member ignored the General Assembly's advice and exercises its veto, it should at least explain why it did so.
The push for a vote comes at a time when the U.N. Security Council has faced criticism for acting too slowly to contain the escalating violence, and in the wake of two key powers, Russia and China, having cast vetoes twice to block an Arab League initiative aimed at ending the violence in Syria and that would force President Bashar al-Assad from power. Russia, which has argued that its diplomatic strategy stands a better chance of lessening the violence, has been among the sharpest critics of theS-5 initiative, characterizing it as an affront to Moscow, according to a senior diplomat involved in the negotiations.
The veto power has long been a source of resentment among the U.N.'s broader membership, who believe that it places the big powers above the law, shielding them and their friends from the edicts they routinely enforce on the rest of the world.
But for the United States, Russia, and other big powers, the veto represents the most important check on international intrusion into their spheres of influence by a sometimes unsympathetic majority. The United States, for instance, has routinely used its veto power to shield Israel from Security Council measures demanding it show greater restraint in its dealings with the Palestinians. China and Russia, meanwhile, have exercised the veto to block condemnation of friendly countries, including Myanmar and Zimbabwe, from condemnation for committing rights abuses.
A number of economic heavyweights and emerging powers, including Brazil, Germany, Japan, India, Nigeria, and South Africa, have been clamoring for a greater say in the council's deliberations, leading to several proposals that would expand the 15-nation Security Council and grant a number of rising powers a permanent seat.
The S-5 -- Costa Rica, Jordan, Liechtenstein, Singapore, and Switzerland -- realize that they have no hope of ever becoming big powers with permanent seats on the council. So they have devoted their efforts to pushing for reforms in the way the 15-nation council does business. Indeed, their recommendations on the use of the veto are a part of a broader menu of suggestions, including more P-5 consultations with states that aren't serving in the Security Council, that they intend to put before the General Assembly as a way to encourage reforms in the way the council works.
The sponsors say they are confident that they will have support from more than 100 of the assembly's 193 member states. But the P-5 have made it clear they want nothing to do with it, arguing that the U.N. Charter intended the victorious powers of World War II to manage threats to international security. While the vote would not be legally binding it could serve to ramp up political pressure on the big powers to change.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United States, and top diplomats from Britain, China, France, and Russia met with the S-5 on Wednesday in an effort to get them to back down.
Rice also pointed out that there were many other countries, not only the P-5, that have expressed opposition to a General Assembly vote. Another bloc of countries, known as the Uniting for Consensus group, which includes countries like Italy, Pakistan, and Argentina, also oppose a vote -- saying that it would distract from efforts to negotiate an enlargement of the Security Council.
Rice, who did most of the talking, told the group that while they recognize their pioneering effort to reform the council, their resolution would actually undercut the efforts to make the council more transparent. Rice asked them not go ahead with the resolution, according to Paul Seger, Switzerland's U.N. ambassador.
"They tell us don't put that resolution to a vote; it's infringing on the prerogatives of the Security Council, it's disruptive and could jeopardize the overall reform of the Security Council," Seger told Turtle Bay. "My sense is that they are afraid that certain prerogatives, certain acquired rights, are being questioned for the first time."
Mark Lyall Grant, Britain's U.N. ambassador, told Turtle Bay that the U.N. Security Council has undertaken many of the reforms being sought by the S-5, but their decision to bring the matter before the General Assembly would likely result in a "divisive vote that sets back the overall cause of reform."
"The Security Council must be always able to adapt and operate with flexibility in order fulfill its responsibilities under the Charter to meet the evolving challenges to international peace and security," he added in a statement. "But for that effectiveness and adaptability, it needs to be confident in its own decisions and procedures. It ultimately must remain the master of its own rules of procedure, as stated in the U.N. Charter."
Seger and other members of the S-5 say they are not looking for a fight -- but they also say it's unfair for the Security Council to ask other states to send their peacekeepers into harm's way, as Switzerland has in Syria, without including them in informal council deliberations on the situation there. The group, meanwhile, has marshaled a series of legal and political arguments to bolster its case that the majority of U.N. membership should have some role in advising the 15-nation council. They invoked Article 10 of the U.N. Charter, which permits the U.N. General Assembly to make recommendations to the Security Council, except in cases where the council is managing an international "dispute or situation."
Jordan's U.N. ambassador, Prince Ra'ad Zeid Al-Hussein, told Turtle Bay that there is also a legal case to be made that the U.N. Charter itself places limits on the rights of the council's permanent members to veto council action aimed at preventing mass killings. He argued that while the council bears "primary responsibility" for the maintenance of peace and security it also requires decisions be made in "conformity with the principle of justice and international law." Genocide and mass slaughter, he said, are certainly not in conformity with those principles, he said.
"We don't want to go up against the P-5," Seger added. "We don't question the right of the veto we only ask them kindly: Would you consider not using the veto in situations of atrocities, crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide?"
Seger, who also serves as chairman of the U.N. peace-building commission for Burundi, recalled an invitation to brief the Security Council on a visit he had made to that Central African country.. He briefed the council on his findings, and then was asked to leave as the council went behind closed doors for its own discussions on the matter.
"I asked Churkin, 'could I maybe just sit there, be a resource person?'" Seger said, referring to Russia's U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin. "He said, 'No. We cannot open the council consultations to outsiders: It's never been done and it will never be done in the future.'"
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Kofi Annan, the special envoy on Syria, provided the U.N. Security Council this week with another maddeningly inconclusive update on his peace plan.
Yes, Syria has stopped shelling residential neighborhoods. No, it has not stopped its crackdown or called off its snipers.
In essence, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has provided just enough good behavior to keep the diplomatic initiative alive and U.N. sanctions at bay.
The depressing reality, say U.N. diplomats, is that while the Annan plan offers slim hope of bringing about serious political change in Syria it is being kept afloat by the simple fact that no one has a better plan, and no major outside power is willing to commit the military resources to challenge Assad's rule.
The diplomacy played out against a background of mounting uncertainty in Syria, as an unidentified group detonated a massive explosion near a team of U.N. observers. "It is a testament to the difficulty and the danger of the task entrusted to our U.N. observers, and it is a reminder of the risks of violence escalating even further," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the U.N. General Assembly today.
Meanwhile, the Syrian government's security strategy has shifted as the government has come to pursue a low-intensity security operation to crush dissent while limiting the U.N. monitors' freedom of movement. Ban expressed frustration at the "growing numbers of arrest and allegations of brutal torture" as well as an "alarming upsurge in the use of IEDs, and other explosive devices throughout the country."
Under questioning from Western diplomats, the U.N.'s peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous, told the Security Council behind closed doors on Tuesday that while there has been a "noticeable reduction" in the use of heavy weapons and shelling in residential areas there have been a continuation of lower-scale military operations, including sniper fire, and widespread arrests, according to council diplomats who heard the briefing.
"The shift suggests more of a change in tactics rather than a change of heart," said a council diplomat present at the meeting. "Ladsous made it clear that the violent incidents continue."
In his public statement, Annan has presented a gloomy, but highly cautious and balanced account of events on the ground, noting that both the government and the opposition have violated the terms of an April 12 cease-fire he brokered.
"There has been some decrease in the military activities but there are still serious violations in the cessation of violence that was agreed and the levels of violence and abuses are unacceptable," Annan told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday. "Government troops and armor are still present, though in smaller formations. There have been worrying episodes of violence by the Government, but we have also seen attacks against Government forces, troops and installations, and there has been a spate of bombings which are really worrying."
But Annan said that "the presence of our observers, and, in situations where they have intervened specifically, have not only had a calming effect, but sometimes they have been able to get the forces involved to do the right thing."
Behind closed doors, Ladsous said that despite numerous efforts by Syrian security forces to prevent the U.N. from patrolling sensitive areas they have ultimately secured access to the places they need to see.
But he outlined the challenges that U.N. monitors are facing in Syria, saying the U.N. has been unable to secure an agreement from Syria to allow the monitors to travel on their own planes and helicopters within the country.
Ladsous dismissed a suggestion by Russia's U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin that the U.N. simply paint some Syrian military helicopters white, the standard color of U.N. vehicles, and use them, saying it would risk undermining the blue helmets independence and endanger their lives.
Those U.N. monitors that patrol on ground have been subject to highly intrusive "surveillance" by security forces closely shadowing the U.N. inspectors, scaring civilians from talking to the monitors. He also cited reports that opposition figures who met with the monitors have been subsequently targeted by Syrian security. "
Ladsous said the monitors are under constant surveillance and sometimes it is intrusive," said a council diplomat.
On May, 4, Syrian security agents blocked a U.N. convoy at a checkpoint near Daraa, and pointed loaded weapons at the unarmed blue berets, Ladsous told the council. The standoff was resolved when a more senior Syrian official intervened, apologized, and let them on their way.
Despite the setbacks, both Ladsous and Annan said that the small contingent of U.N. monitors in Syria were having a "calming" influence on events and that the best way to build on it was to deploy more monitors.
"I know lots of questions have been asked about what happens if the plan fails," Annan said. "I am waiting for some suggestions as to what else we do. I think if there are better ideas, I will be the first to jump onto it.... We may well conclude down the line that it doesn't work and a different tack has to be taken. And that will be a very sad day."
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Richard Grenell, the foreign policy and national security spokesman for Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney, announced his resignation yesterday, giving up the kind of high-profile political job he had coveted through much of his professional life.
Here at the United Nations, where he served for 8 years as the Bush administration's press spokesman, Grenell's political fall set off some reflexive expressions of glee from insiders, who had been stunned by Grenell's appointment and initially thought he'd been ousted for posting inflammatory and derisive tweets targeting everyone from Michelle Obama to Calista Gingrigh.
But as people began to realize that Grenell may have been forced out of his job because of opposition from social and religious conservatives -- not on his merits or lack thereof but because of his sexuality -- a twinge of guilt set in. "I take back the snarky comment," said one U.N. insider, who initially hailed news of Grenell's political demise with a laugh. "He had to resign ... because he is openly gay!"
In a statement posted on Jennifer Rubin's Right Turn Blog, which broke the news, Grenell said he decided to resign because "my ability to speak clearly and forcefully on the issues has been greatly diminished by the hyper-partisan discussion of personal issues that sometimes comes from a presidential campaign." He thanked Governor Romney "for his belief in me and my abilities and his clear message to me that being openly gay was a non-issue for him and his team."
R. Clark Cooper, the executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, said Grenell made his decision because it is "best for the Romney campaign" if it was unfortunate that "the hyper-partisan discussion of issues unrelated to Ric's national security qualifications threatened to compromise his effectiveness on the campaign trail...."
"Ric was essentially hounded by the far right and far left," he said. "The Romney campaign has lost a well-known advocate of conservative ideas and a talented spokesman, and I am certain he will remain an active voice for a confident U.S. foreign policy."
Grenell is a well-known, if not terribly popular figure at the United Nations, where he served as spokesman for every one of President George W. Bush's U.N. envoys, including John Negroponte, John Danforth, John Bolton and Zalmay Khalilzad. The son of Christian missionaries from the Church of God, Grenell preferred the role of political enforcer to that of the foreign policy wonk, routinely accusing reporters of anti-Republican bias.
Grenell regarded his famously combative relationship with the press -- detailed in this Village Voice article -- as a badge of honor, and Bolton and other foreign policy conservatives rallied to his defense when his tweets -- he once accused Vice President Joe Biden of using botox -- raised questions about his judgment and maturity.
"During his time at the U.S. Mission to the U.N., he showed discretion and good judgment, and did an excellent job representing our country during often very difficult circumstances," Bolton said in a statement. The Washington Post reported that Bolton sought to persuade Grenell not to resign. Romney's campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, meanwhile, said "We are disappointed that Ric decided to resign from the campaign for his own personal reasons. We wanted him to stay because he had superior qualifications for the position he was hired to fill."
But Grenell's foreign policy tenure was not without controversy.
In February 2003, a Mexican reporter at the U.N. published a story claiming that Grenell had pushed Mexico's U.N. ambassador, Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, to "hurry up" his remarks to the press so that Negroponte, who was waiting in the wings for a chance to address the media, could speak. "Who cares what Mexico has to say?" he reportedly said.
The report set off a diplomatic storm in Mexico, where it was widely reported, and Negroponte, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico seeking the country's backing for the Iraq war, had to smooth things over with the Mexican envoy. At the time, there were rumors that the comments had been picked up on a reporter's tape recorder. But a recording never materialized, Grenell categorically denied it, and the U.S. State Department issued a statement defending him.
After leaving government, Grenell continued to monitor events at the U.N., tweeting and writing an occasional op-ed piece for Fox News or the Huffington Post that savaged Susan Rice's tenure at the United Nations and mocked the press as going to soft on her. "If she won't voluntarily resign then she should be fired," he wrote in one Fox News op-ed.
He even found time to take an occasional pot shot at me. After I retweeted a story by my colleague Glenn Kessler taking issue with Romney's characterization of Russia as America's principal geostrategic foe, Grenell fired back with a tweet comparing us to Sergeant Shultz in the 1960's sitcom Hogan's Heroes, and linking to a YouTube video with him relaying his classic line "I know nothing."Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Every several months, a U.N. Panel of Experts issues a report documenting Sudan's extensive violations of U.N. Security Council sanctions in Darfur, and pleads with the council's big powers to use their influence to persuade Khartoum and anti-government rebel groups to comply.
And every time, their appeals for backup are largely ignored, especially by China and Russia, which supply Khartoum with some of the arms and firepower that fuel Darfur's fighting, and which have routinely refused to fully cooperate with the panel's experts as they seek to trace the origins of prohibited weapons from factories in China and Russia.
Three former panel members, Claudio Gramizzi of Italy, Michael Lewis of Britain, and Jerome Tubiana of France, recently produced an unofficial report arguing that the international commitment to sanctions had eroded so much that even the United Nations itself was flouting the sanctions, facilitating the travel of a rebel field commander, Jibril Abdul Kareem, nicknamed "Tek," who was subject to a Security Council travel ban, to peace talks in Doha, Qatar.
The Tek episode is simply one nugget buried away in a confidential 80-plus page report, first reported by Africa Confidential, that documents systematic violations of a six-year-old U.N. arms embargo, travel ban, and asset freeze, imposed on Khartoum and rebel leaders in an effort to contain the violence in Sudanese province.
But the episode provides a depressing illustration of how an initiative that once enjoyed the enthusiastic backing of the council's major Western powers -- the United States, Britain, and France -- has become such a low priority that few key players in the region take it seriously anymore.
The Security Council first imposed an arms embargo on armed groups in Darfur in 2004, and expanded it the following year to include the government. The council also slapped a travel ban and an asset freeze on the leaders of both pro-government and anti-government armed groups in Darfur, including the government backed militia known as the Janjaweed, which gained international notoriety for its scorched earth raids, conducted on camels and backed by Sudanese air power, against countless Darfurian villages.
The measures were designed to curtail a massive wave of violence -- that ultimately led to the death of at least 300,000 people and the displacement of many times that number -- and to constrain the Sudanese government from carrying out mass murder in Darfur.
The report's three authors resigned late last summer over a dispute with the panel's Indian coordinator, who produced a competing official report. The panel, they wrote, "suffered from a major dissension" within the ranks. The coordinator, they complained, had insisted that each of the panel's five members conduct their work independently without coordinating or sharing information, a policy they believed undermined the panel's effectiveness. But officials familiar with the dispute said the difference ran much deeper, reflecting a lack of faith in the integrity and competence of the panel's leadership. Eric Reeves, a Smith College literature professor and Sudan activist, has written his own take on the report, highlighting the dissidents' far more critical account of the human rights situation in Darfur than the authors of the official U.N. report.
The Security Council's enthusiasm for the U.N. panel's work waned years ago, according to experts. In 2009, Enrico Carisch, a former head of the sanctions panel, testified before Congress that the Security Council had failed to act on more than 100 panel recommendations aimed at strengthening the sanctions. He also faulted the United States, France, and Britain for doing little to force a more public debate.
Carisch, currently an independent consultant who trains U.N. panel experts, told Turtle Bay that the dissidents' decision to produce a "shadow" report highlighted some of the institutional weakness of the U.N. sanctions system. At the same time, he said their breadth of the findings highlight the value of their work. "The powerful evidence reported by these experts demonstrates how skillful and sustained sanctions monitoring is important to shine a light into the darkest corners of conflict areas," Carisch said.
The dissidents' expert report assails Khartoum for systematically violating the arms embargo, thwarting efforts of U.N. experts to enforce sanctions, and conducting ethnic cleansing against the Zaghawa tribe. It documents Sudan's use of use of Chinese small-caliber ammunition, Russian Mi-24 attack helicopters, Ukrainian tanks, and Belarussian Sukhoi-25 fighter jets
But it also provides a devastating account of the U.N. panels' own efforts to monitor and enforce the U.N. sanctions. Indeed, the report challenges much of the underlying evidence used to justify sanctions against "Tek" and two other rebel leaders, Adam Yaqub and Musa Hilal, the latter a notorious Janjaweed leader. The reports, produced by a previous team of U.N. panel experts, were riddled with inaccuracies, including misspelled names and unsupportable claims. For instance, the report notes that there may have been ample evidence that Hilal commanded militia engaged in widespread atrocities in his stronghold in north Darfur. But it also expressed serious doubts that he was responsible for the crime the U.N. panel attributed to him to justify sanctions.
In April 2006, the U.N. panel accused Hilal of leading a Sept. 28, 2005, militia raid on the West Darfur villages of Acho, Aro Sharrow, and Gozmena, to seek revenge for the death of one of his sons who was purportedly killed by a rebel movement linked to the towns. The dissidents' report, however, said Hilal did not lead West Darfur's militias and that "it is unproved and unlikely that Musa Hilal was responsible and/or present" at the scene of the raids. The report also said it found no evidence that Hilal's son had been killed.
While the dissidents questioned the justification for Jibril's designation on the sanctions list they also argued that the U.N. still has an obligation to enforce those measures. But on July 20, 2010, Jibril traveled to Qatar with a travel document -- known as a laissez passer -- issued by the deputy chief of staff of the United Nations-African Union Joint Mediation Support Team(JMST). The visit, which lasted a year, was part of a Qatari-led mediation effort to broker a peace settlement between Khartoum and several Darfuri rebel groups.
The dissident panel members said the U.N. violation of sanctions in this instance was unnecessary. A provision in the six-year-old sanctions resolution -- Resolution 1591 -- includes an exemption allowing travel for sanctioned individuals participating in peace initiatives. However, the exemption can only be approved by the Security Council committee that oversees sanctions.
"The members of the panel are unaware of any request by the JSMT or from UNAMID [The U.N. African Union Mission in Darfur] to the sanctions committee for permission to issue this document or to authorize the travel of Tek by air to Qatar," the report states. "Jibril ‘Tek's' presence in Doha represents a case of violation of the sanctions regime."
But the larger issue, according to the dissidents, is what the episode says about the U.N.'s ability and commitment to apply its own sanctions fairly and with conviction. "Should access to Darfur, and more generally cooperation from member states, United Nations and African Union bodies working in or on Darfur, as well as the general ability of the panel to provide accurate justifications for individual sanctions and monitor them, not increase in the future, the very existence of both the panel and the sanctions mechanism should be seriously reconsidered."
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The United States and its European allies are heading for another dust up in the Security Council over the strategy for reinforcing a shaky U.N.-brokered cease-fire, according to U.N. diplomats.
The council's European powers, Britain and France, tabled a draft resolution that would require Syria meet its commitment to provide U.N. monitors with freedom of movement and unimpeded access to any sources in the country or face the threat of U.N. sanctions. Russia, meanwhile, is now pushing a competing resolution that would not threaten Syria with any fresh penalties if fails to comply with its requirements. (See note below)
The competing drafts both support a proposal by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to establish a full-fledged U.N. monitoring mission of at least 300 blue berets, and likely more down the road, with freedom of movement and unimpeded access to individuals within Syria.
But the Western draft, which was distributed to the council by France, goes much further, condemning Syria's violent repression of civilians during the past year, and places sharper demands on Damascus to order their forces back to the barracks.
The Western draft also included a provision, which is being hotly contested by Moscow, threatening to adopt measures under article 41 of the U.N. charter -- a reference to sanctions -- if Syria fails to meet its "commitments in their entirety" to "withdraw its troops and heavy weapons from population centers to their barracks to facilitate a sustained cessation of violence."
On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that governments need to "start moving very vigorously in the Security Council" towards the adoption of a sanctions resolution including travel, financial sanctions, and an arms embargo to pressure the regime to comply with special emissary Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan. But she acknowledged that Russia is still likely to veto any U.N. resolution imposing sanctions on Syria. She also voiced concern about the viability of the new observer mission, raising the prospects, however unlikely, that the council may pull the plug on a U.N. mission before it gets fully going.
"We're in a dilemma," she said. "We think it's important to get independent sources of observation and reporting on the ground, but we do not want to create a situation where those who are sent in to do this mission themselves are subjected to violence."
The latest diplomatic scuffle comes one day after the U.N. and Syria reached agreement this week on a so-called "preliminary agreement" that sets the operating terms for a small team of U.N. monitors that have struggled in recent days to test the will of the Syrian government to let them document abuses in a conflict that may have left more than 11,000 dead.
The new 8-page pact -- which was obtained by Turtle Bay from a U.N. diplomat -- furnishes the monitors with some vital powers, including the authority to import communications equipment and conduct unobstructed communications with U.N. headquarters, that a failed Arab League monitoring mission earlier this year lacked.
But there remain unresolved matters: for instance, Syria has not yet agreed to permit the U.N. to bring in its own planes or helicopters to transport the monitors to a hot spot at a moment's notice. The U.N.'s assistant secretary general for peacekeeping, Edmond Mulet, told the Security Council behind closed doors on Thursday that a pact on U.N. air assets is vital to the monitors' success and that the U.N. would try to strike a deal with the Syrians by the time an expanded U.N. monitoring mission could be deployed.
So far, Ban and other top U.N. officials say that while Syria has yet to fully meet its obligations to withdraw troops and heavy weapons from Syrian towns, and though it initially blocked the observer team from traveling to the city of Homs, they still believe there is value in expanding the size of the U.N. monitoring mission over the coming weeks, and reinforcing its technical capacity.
After three days of frustrating patrols aimed at testing their freedom of movement, the monitors took a break from their patrols today. Ahmed Fawzi, the chief spokesman for Annan, told Turtle Bay the monitors were "regrouping, reassessing" and planning for a new round of patrols on Saturday.
U.N. officials said that the monitors are straining to find a way to do their work under conditions that are complicated by the intensive interest of media, who have been tracking their every step, the large crowds that have poured into the streets to greet them during patrols, a loosely organized armed opposition, and a government that has not yet fully resigned itself to its commitment to submit to outside scrutiny.
A routine patrol to the town of Arbeen underscored the risks of monitoring in a country that remains in a state of conflict. A U.N. convoy was approached by a crowd of protesters that "forced UN vehicles to a checkpoint," according to a report by Ban to the UNSC. "Subsequently, the crowd was dispersed by firing projectiles. Those responsible for the firing could not be ascertained by the United Nations Military Observers."
Ban wrote that that "it remains a challenge to assess accurately unconfirmed and conflicting reports of developments in Syria. He said that while "levels of violence dropped markedly" in the days following a April 12 U.N.-brokered cease-fire, "violent incidents and reports of casualties have escalated again in recent days, with reports of shelling of civilian areas and abuses by government forces. The Government reports violent actions by armed groups. The cessation of armed violence in all its forms is therefore clearly incomplete."
(note: an earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the U.S. joined Britain and France in tabling a draft resolution on U.N. monitors. However, the U.S. was closely involved in the drafts preparation, according to a council source. The council is currently negotiating on the basis of the Russian text.)
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U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has proposed the U.N. Security Council establish a full-fledged U.N. monitoring mission for Syria with an initial 300 unarmed blue berets, backed by air transport, and with the authority to carry out unimpeded investigations into possible cease-fire violations by the Syrian government or armed opposition.
The new mission would be deployed within weeks after the 15-nation council adopts a resolution creating the new mission, which would be called the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria (UNMIS). Ban suggested that the mission might need to be enlarged and that he would come back to the council within 90 days with a new plan to "further develop and define the mission's mandate, scope and methods of work."
"It would be a nimble presence that would constantly and rapidly observe, establish and assess the facts and conditions on the ground in an objective manner, and engage all relevant parties," Ban wrote of the new mission. His 8-page report was distributed to the Security Council tonight and will be made public shortly. Security Council diplomats say they hope a resolution can be voted on by early next week.
The report provides a mixed account of the security conditions on the ground since the U.N. deployed its first monitors three days ago in Syria, noting that "it remains a challenge to assess accurately unconfirmed and conflicting reports of developments in Syria."
Ban wrote that "levels of violence dropped markedly" in Syria since April 12, when a U.N.-brokered cease fire went into effect, "however, the Syrian Government has yet to fully implement its initial obligations regarding the actions and deployments of its troops and heavy weapons, or to return them to barracks. Violent incidents and reports of casualties have escalated again in recent days, with reports of shelling of civilian areas and abuses by government forces. The Government reports violent actions by armed groups. The cessation of armed violence in all its forms is therefore clearly incomplete."
The reports say that the U.N. monitors had been initially blocked from visiting the town of Homs, but that they were granted "freedom of movement" during a visit to Deraa on Tuesday, where they found no evidence of armed violence or heavy weapons. Visits to three other towns, including Jobar, Zamalka, and Arbeen in Rif Damascus revealed continuing military presence at multiple checkpoints, as well as an armored personnel carried hidden under a plastic sheet.
The report also documented an incident in Arbeen that ended in violence.
"The situation in Arbeen became tense when a crowd that was part of an opposition demonstration forced United Nations vehicles to a checkpoint. Subsequently, the crowd was dispersed by firing projectiles. Those responsible for the firing could not be ascertained by the United Nations Military Observers. No injuries were observed by the United Nations advance team. One United Nations vehicle was damaged slightly during the incident."
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Full text of Ban Ki-moon's letter to the U.N. Security Council:
18 April 2012
Her Excellency/Ms. Susan Rice/President of the Security Council/New York
1. Further to operative paragraph 5 of Security Council resolution 2042 (2012), and to the briefing of the Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and the League of Arab States, Kofi Annan, to the Security Council on 12 April 2012, I wish to outline a proposal for a United Nations supervision mission in Syria (UNSMIS) for an initial period of three months. I recommend that the Council authorize such a mission, with the understanding that I will consider relevant developments on the ground, including the consolidation of the cessation of the violence, to decide on deployments.
2. The protracted crisis in Syria over the past 13 months has seen many thousands killed, injured, detained or displaced. The violence has been characterized by use of heavy weapons in civilian areas and widespread violations of human rights, while aspirations for political change in the country have not been met. I remain deeply concerned about the gravity of the situation in the country. However, without under-estimating the serious challenges ahead, an opportunity for progress may now exist, on which we need to build.
3. On 25 March 2012, the Syrian Government committed to an initial six-point plan proposed by the Joint Special Envoy, which has the full support of the Security Council. This plan includes provisions for immediate steps by the Syrian Government, and a cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties to protect civilians and stabilize the country. To this end, it requires the Syrian government immediately to cease troop movements towards, and end the use of heavy weapons in, population centres and to begin pullback of military concentrations in and around population centres.
It also requires a range of other steps by the Syrian Government to alleviate the crisis, including humanitarian access, access to and release of detainees, access and freedom of movement for journalists, and freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully. The plan embodies the need for an inclusive Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people.
4. On 11 April 2012, the Syrian Government stated it would cease all military operations throughout the entire country, and similar commitments were obtained from the armed opposition. Accordingly, for the first time in over one year, a cessation of violence was declared and went into effect across Syria at 0600 hours on 12 April 2012. This was an important step by all parties in de-escalating the situation. It now must be effectively sustained.
5. The engagement of many states with influence on the parties was and remains critical to furthering this process. The Security Council has spoken with one voice through its presidential statements of 3 August, 21 March and 5 April and resolution 2042 of 14 April. The Council's continued unity is also of critical importance in seeking a pacific settlement of the crisis.
Developments since 12 April
6. Given the lack of presence on the ground other than the first members of the Advance Team who arrived three days ago, it remains a challenge to assess accurately unconfirmed and conflicting reports of developments in Syria. Nevertheless, it appears that levels of violence dropped markedly on 12 April and the following days, with a concomitant decrease in reports of casualties. However, the Syrian Government has yet to fully implement its initial obligations regarding the actions and deployments of its troops and heavy weapons, or to return them to barracks. Violent incidents and reports of casualties have escalated again in recent days, with reports of shelling of civilian areas and abuses by government forces. The Government reports violent actions by armed groups. The cessation of armed violence in all its forms is therefore clearly incomplete. At the same time, in accordance with their acceptance of the six-point plan, the parties have continued to express their commitment to a cessation of armed violence in all its forms and have agreed to cooperate with a United Nations supervision mechanism to observe and strengthen both sides commitment to a cessation.
7. The advance team of up to 30 unarmed military observers authorized by the Security Council in paragraph 7 of resolution 2042 (2012) began to deploy on 16 April 2012. It has commenced liaison with the parties and is beginning to report on the cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties. This team is led by a Colonel and will be swiftly augmented by the necessary mission support personnel, including ordnance experts and United Nations security officers.
8. The team visited Deraa on 17 April 2012. During its two to three hour presence in the city, it enjoyed freedom of movement. It observed no armed violence or heavy weapons in the city. It observed no major military concentrations, but several points were occupied at section level, and buses and trucks with soldiers were dispersed throughout the city. The team visited Jobar, Zamalka and Arbeen in Rif Damascus today. It reported military presence at checkpoints and around some public squares and buildings in all three locations. In Arbeen, one armoured personnel carrier was hidden, covered by a plastic sheet. The situation in Arbeen became tense when a crowd that was part of an opposition demonstration forced United Nations vehicles to a checkpoint. Subsequently, the crowd was dispersed by firing projectiles. Those responsible for the firing could not be ascertained by the United Nations Military Observers. No injuries were observed by the United Nations advance team. One United Nations vehicle was damaged slightly during the incident. The team expects to visit Rif Daraa tomorrow. The team's initial request to visit Homs was not granted, with officials claiming security concerns.
9. Action on other aspects of the six-point plan remains partial, and, while difficult to assess, it does not amount yet to the clear signal expected from the Syrian authorities. Regarding the right to protest peacefully, numerous demonstrations were organized on 13 April after Friday prayers, one day after the date of the cessation of violence. Reports issued by local opposition groups suggest that these were met with a more restrained response than in previous incidents of protest, but there were nevertheless attempts to intimidate protesters, including reports of incidents of rifle fire by government troops. On detainees, on 5 April the International Committee for the Red Cross announced that it had agreed with the Syrian Government on procedures for visits to places of detention and that this would be put into practice with a visit to Aleppo prison. However, the status and circumstances of thousands of detainees across the country remains unclear and there continue to be concerning reports of significant abuses. There has been no significant release of detainees. On 12 April the Syrian Government said entry visas were granted to "53 Arab and foreign journalists" between 25 March and 12 April. We have no further information on this. All journalists must have full freedom of movement throughout the country.
10. Meanwhile, on the issue of humanitarian access, while the United Nations and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) needs assessment report identified one million people in need of humanitarian assistance in Syria, no substantive progress has been achieved over the last weeks of negotiations on access to those in need, or in increasing the capacity of organizations on the ground.
11. Developments since 12 April underline the importance of sending a clear message to the authorities that a cessation of armed violence must be respected in full, and that action is needed on all aspects of the six-point plan. Actions on the ground must be consistent with stated commitments to carry out the six-point plan. At the same time, the very fragility of the situation underscores the importance of putting in place arrangements that can allow impartial supervision and monitoring. A United Nations monitoring mission deployed quickly when the conditions are conducive with a clear mandate, the requisite capacities, and the appropriate conditions of operation would greatly contribute to observing and upholding the commitment of the parties to a cessation of armed violence in all its forms and to supporting the implementation of the six-point plan.
12. An expanded mission, UNSMIS, would comprise an initial deployment of up to 300 United Nations Military Observers. They would be deployed incrementally over a period of weeks, in approximately ten locations throughout Syria. It would be a nimble presence that would constantly and rapidly observe, establish and assess the facts and conditions on the ground in an objective manner, and engage all relevant parties. It would be headed by a Chief Military Observer at the rank of Major-General. UNSMIS would additionally comprise substantive and mission support personnel with a range of skills, including advisors with political, human rights, civil affairs, public information, public security, gender and other expertise. These elements would be essential to ensure comprehensive monitoring of and support to the parties for the full implementation of the six-point plan. Given the size of the country and the challenges on the ground, the mission would need to maximize the effectiveness of its supervision and observation responsibilities with effective informational awareness and information management so that it uses its resources effectively. UNSMIS would be funded through the peacekeeping account.
13. Consistent with paragraph 5 of resolution 2042, UNSMIS should monitor a cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties and relevant aspects of the Joint Special Envoy's six-point proposal. Regarding a cessation of armed violence, it should be noted that the Syrian Government's full implementation and adherence to its obligations to cease troop movements towards population centres, cease all use of heavy weapons in population centres, and begin the pullback of military concentrations in and around population centres are critical, and that the withdrawal of all troops and heavy weapons from population centres to their barracks is important to facilitate a sustained cessation of violence. Equally, all parties, including both the Government and the opposition, must sustain a cessation of armed violence in all its forms. These will be the areas of monitoring by the military observers who, in the course of their duties to supervise the cessation of violence, will pay due regard to other aspects of the six-point-plan.
14. In this regard, it should also be noted that human rights abuses have characterized much of the fighting over the past thirteen months, and that any cessation of armed violence must necessarily encompass a cessation of such abuses, including torture, arbitrary detentions, abductions, sexual violence and other abuses against women, children and minorities. The free movement of journalists throughout the country and the respect of freedom of association and the right of Syrians to demonstrate peacefully as legally guaranteed will also be critical. The release of persons arbitrarily detained is a key commitment of the Government under the six point plan that would provide a significant signal of the serious intent of the Government effectively to implement the plan in its entirety and create the conditions for a political solution through peaceful dialogue.
15. UNSMIS would not be involved in the delivery, coordination, and monitoring of humanitarian assistance. The coordination of humanitarian assistance is the responsibility of the Emergency Relief Coordinator. It should be noted in this regard that all parties, particularly the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic, must allow immediate, full and unimpeded access of humanitarian personnel to all people in need and to cooperate fully with the United Nations and relevant humanitarian organizations to facilitate the swift provision of humanitarian assistance.
16. A supervision mission that has the capacity, through military observers and civilian personnel, to monitor and support a cessation of violence in all its forms and the implementation of the remaining aspects of the six-point plan could help create the conditions for a comprehensive political dialogue between the Syrian government and the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition. Such a supervision mission would be important to sustain peace and a meaningful political process in the country. This would provide important support for the Joint Special Envoy's efforts to facilitate a Syrian-led political transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people and brings about a political solution to the crisis in Syria.
17. In committing to the six-point plan, the Government of Syria has indicated its consent to an effective UN supervision mechanism. As of 18 April, discussions with the Government of Syria on preliminary understandings to provide the basis for a protocol governing the deployment of the Advance Team and of a UN supervision mission made progress and are continuing. Other parties to the conflict have indicated their readiness to work with a mission. It is essential in this regard that the actions of the Government in particular are in full conformity with its commitment and with the fundamental principles necessary to enable an effective mission as embodied in resolution 2042. As called for by resolution 2042, it is incumbent upon the Government of Syria to facilitate the expeditious and unhindered deployment of personnel and capabilities of the mission as required to fulfil its mandate; to ensure its full, unimpeded, and immediate freedom of movement and access as necessary to fulfil its mandate; allow its unobstructed communications; and allow it to freely and privately communicate with individuals throughout Syria without retaliation against any person as a result of interaction with the mission. The Syrian authorities have the primary responsibility for the safety of the mission, which should be guaranteed by all parties without prejudice to its freedom of movement and access. This freedom of movement will need to be supported by appropriate air transport assets to ensure mobility and capacity to react quickly to reported incidents. Consultations have taken place to explain these principles to the Government of Syria, including fundamental principles of UN peacekeeping regarding selection of personnel.
18. I will seek to conclude with the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic an agreement concerning the status of UNSMIS within 30 days of the adoption of the resolution establishing UNSMIS, taking into consideration General Assembly resolution 58/82 on the scope of legal protection under the Convention on the Safety of United Nations and Associated Personnel. In accordance with the customary practice of the United Nations, pending the conclusion of such an agreement, the model status-of-forces agreement dated 9 October 1990 (A/45/594) shall apply provisionally.
19. Member States, in particular the neighboring States, should assist the Advance Team and UNSMIS by ensuring the free, unhindered and expeditious movement to and from the Syrian Arab Republic of all personnel, as well as equipment, provisions, supplies and other goods, including vehicles and spare parts.
20. The mandate and operational posture of the mission proposed herein, including its deployment and structure, would establish an effective observer mission, with the configuration and functions described above. I would intend to further develop and define the mission's mandate, scope and methods of work based on the initial deployment, the evolution of conditions on the ground, and engagements with all relevant parties. Proposals in this regard would be contained in a report to the Security Council as soon as practicable but not more than 90 days after the establishment of UNSMIS.
21. I should be grateful if you could bring this letter urgently to the attention of the members of the Security Council.
Please accept, Excellency, the assurances of my highest consideration.
Dear Asma, remember those heady times before the Arab Spring, when we pinned our hopes on the "rose of the desert," your ability to work your liberalizing magic, and the dream that you could turn your autocratic husband into a democrat?
Those days are over.
Europe's elites have completed the total ostracism of Syria's stylish British-born first lady, Asma al-Assad, banning her from stepping foot in most European capitals or shopping in Europe's finest department stores.
Last month, the European Union added her name to a list of President Bashar al-Assad cronies subjected to a travel ban and asset freeze.
And now, the wives of Britain's and Germany's U.N. ambassadors have produced a new YouTube video letter scolding Asma for her obsession with fashion and image at a time when her husband's government is launching a bloody crackdown on protesters. (See the online petition here.)
The video draws from the image of Asma that emerged from a series of leaked emails she sent to her husband, describing extravagant purchases at posh European retail establishments. Interspersing glamour shots of Asma from a Vogue magazine shoot with images of mortally wounded Syrian children and common women protesting her husband's rule, the video serves as an online letter and petition from the world's women to Asma to stop the violence in Syria.
The text reads:
Some women care for style
And some women care for their people.
Some women struggle for their image
And some women struggle for survival.
Some women have forgotten what they preached about peace
[Asma, at lectern: "We all deserve the same thing: We should all be able to live in peace, stability and with our dignities."]
And some women can only pray for their dead.
Some women pretend that they have no choice
And some women just act.
What happened to you, Asma?
Hundreds of Syrian children have already been killed and injured
One day, our children will ask us
What we have done to stop this bloodshed
What will your answer be, Asma?"
That you, Asma, had no choice?
What about this boy, where was his choice?
Each single child had a name and a family.
Their lives will never the same again.
Asma, when you kiss your own children goodnight,
Another mother will find the place next to her empty.
These children could all be your children.
They are your children.
Stand up for peace, Asma.
Speak out now, for the sake of your people.
Stop your husband and his supporters.
Stop being a bystander.
No one cares about your image.
We care about your action.
The project is the brain-child of Huberta von Voss-Wittig, a journalist married Germany's U.N. ambassador Peter Wittig, and Sheila Lyall Grant, the wife of Britain's U.N. ambassador Mark Lyall Grant. Other prominent diplomatic spouses, including Muna Ghassan Tamim Rihani, the wife of the Qatari president of the U.N. General Assembly, Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, have signed the petition. By Wednesday morning, the online campaign had registered more than 4,500 signatures, including the wives of the U.N. ambassadors from Japan, Lithuania, and Finland.
The point of the project is to try to harness the power of YouTube to draw attention to the crisis in Syria and to rally women from across the globe to register their disgust with the Syrian first lady's conduct during one of the bloodiest chapters in the Arab Spring.
"We came up with this idea really to make Asma speak out; her voice is desperately needed in stopping the bloodshed," said Huberta Wittig, who traveled frequently to Syria when her husband was Germany's ambassador to Lebanon. "She can't hide behind her husband any more."
Wittig told Turtle Bay that the initiative is personal, and that it has nothing to do with the U.N.'s diplomatic or her husband's government's efforts to resolve the crisis. The video was produced with the unpaid help of a team of two producers, and a young British actress, Clemency Burton-Hill, who provided the narration voiceover. Wittig said the project was partly inspired by the Kony2012 YouTube campaign, but that they strove to produce a film that didn't look like a Hollywood picture.
The campaign caps a dramatic reversal of fortune for the Syrian first lady. Indeed, the 36-year-old former British investment banker from Acton, West London, was viewed as a force for modernity and liberalization in Syria when she married the young Bashar in 2000, the same year the ophthalmology student replaced his father, Hazef al-Assad, as Syria's ruler.
Before the current upheaval, she was lauded as a force for modernization in Syria, a whip-smart beauty whose liberal views might one day trickle through the repressive ranks of the Assad regime. Vogue magazine dubbed her the "Rose of the Desert" in a controversial and highly flattering profile that was published at the start of the Syrian uprising and subsequently removed from its online website.
But her standing has taken a sharp fall since the Guardian published a trove of highly personal emails with her husband, revealing her taste for online luxury shopping, which included thousands of dollars of purchases, including French chandeliers, candlesticks, and other items -- which seemed not only excessive but incongruous with the mounting bloodshed and crackdown on ordinary Syrian civilians.
"Here she is an educated woman who came in as a young moderate and she hasn't lived up to that reputation," Lyall Grant told Turtle Bay. "She has spoken about dignity and all these important aspects of life but she has not taken action" to reaffirm them.
Despite her pariah status and an EU travel ban, Asma is still allowed to travel to Britain, where she retains British citizenship. But senior British officials have made it clear that she is not really welcome, and she could also face possible arrest on charges of violating EU sanctions during her online shopping sprees.
"British nationals, British passport holders do obviously have a right of entry to the United Kingdom," Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague said last month, according to the BBC. "But given that we are imposing an asset freeze on all of these individuals, and a travel ban on other members of the same family and the regime, we're not expecting Mrs Assad to try to travel to the United Kingdom at the moment."Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
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The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously today to send up to 30 U.N. blue berets to Syria as the spearhead of a U.N. monitoring mission charged with reinforcing a shaky two-day-long cease-fire between the Syrian government and armed insurgents.
Today's vote places the United Nations at the center of one of the most volatile crises of the Arab Spring and offers the outside world independent eyewitness to the brutality that has unfolded during a 13-month crackdown on anti-government protesters that has left more than 9,000 dead and pitched the country into civil war.
Following the U.N. vote, U.S. and European diplomats welcomed the decision to deploy U.N. monitors in Syria, but said that they remained skeptical about Damascus's willingness to end its violent repression of anti-government targets.
"We are under no illusion -- two days of diminished violence after a year of murderous rampage hardly proves that the regime is serious about honoring its commitments," said Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "Just today serious forces resumed their brutal shelling of Homs and shot innocent mourners in Allepo."
Syria's U.N. envoy, Bashar al-Jaafari, told the council that his government will "spare no effort to guarantee the success" of Special Envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan and that it supports the U.N. monitoring mission -- so long as it doesn't violate Syrian sovereignty. But he said that Syria is currently engaged in negotiations with Annan's team on the mandate of such a mission. For his part, Jaafari claimed Syrian opposition elements have been responsible for 50 violations of the cease-fire, a claim that was challenged by Rice and other council diplomats.
The brittle peace presents serious risks for the United Nations, which has traditionally been reluctant to send its peacekeepers into a hot war where there is no peace to keep and no durable political settlement in place. In Syria, the government and armed and civilian opposition leaders have not even begun to talk to each other.
Still, the council resolution reinforces Annan's six-point plan, which calls on both sides to cease fighting, enter political talks, urges Syria to release political prisoners, guarantees freedom of movements for journalists and humanitarian aid workers, and allows peaceful demonstrations.
The council's action today is the first step in a two-stage process that will lead to the establishment of a full-fledged U.N. monitoring mission staffed with about 250 monitors, most of them recruited from other U.N. missions in the region. Today's resolution calls on the U.N. secretary general to present the council with a detailed blueprint for the monitoring mission by April 18. The council is expected to pass another resolution authorizing the new U.N. mission.
Today's resolution goes beyond Annan's peace plan, however, by pressing Syria to return its security forces and heavy weapons in the barracks. The Annan plan only requires Syria to begin its pullbacks of military assets from key cities.
The resolution also calls on Ban Ki-moon, an outspoken critic of the Bashar al-Assad regime, to report "any obstructions to the effective operation" of the U.N. team to the Security Council, a provision that is likely to increase pressure on the regime to comply. The council will "further steps as appropriate" if the Syrians' or the opposition fail to comply.
Today's action by the council followed a contentious round of negotiations that pitted the United States and its European and Arab allies against Russia. Moscow had opposed efforts to include language requiring Syria to empower the monitors with greater freedom of movement and action, saying their mandate needed to be negotiated with the Syrian government.
In order to secure Russian support, the United States and other key sponsors of the resolution were forced to strip out provisions from the resolution that would have required Syria to provide unimpeded access throughout the country. Instead, it merely "calls upon" the Syrian government to guarantee "full, unimpeded, and immediate freedom of movement and access" for the U.N. monitors.
Analysts said that the new monitoring mission will be unlikely to fundamentally alter the military balance of power in Syria or end the violence, but that it may provide a boost to U.N.-backed efforts to mediate a political settlement.
"I don't think the small monitor team alone can make a difference on the ground," said Marc Lynch, a Middle East scholar at George Washington University. "Its significance is more as a small step to build momentum behind Annan plan, demonstration of international consensus, and test of Assad. The drawn out negotiations for even such a small step don't bode well. It's important to push forward quickly or else the point of such a small step will be lost."
"The initial deployment of monitors is a political gesture, and could be undercut by a rapid return to violence," said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at New York University's Center for International Cooperation. "Nonetheless, the Western powers in the Security Council were right to insist that the monitors should be guaranteed freedom of movement and unimpeded access to civilians."
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Russia clashed today with the United States and its European and Arab allies over a plan to send U.N. monitors to Syria to enforce a shaky cease-fire accord.
Despite broad agreement over the need to swiftly deploy U.N. blue berets in Syria, the two sides are split over the U.N. mission's mandate. The main sticking point revolves around a dispute over whether the U.N. monitors should be empowered with sweeping authority to go anywhere and interview anyone they chose.
The United States has circulated a draft resolution that condemns Syria's military crackdown on opposition targets, grants U.N. monitors extensive freedom to poke around the country, and strengthens demands on Syria to withdraw its forces and heavy weapons to the barracks.
Russia, meanwhile, favors a simple resolution that would immediately authorize the deployment of the advance team, but would require the U.N. to negotiate the terms of their mandate with Syrian government. Those terms could be set out in a future resolution establishing a full-fledged U.N. monitoring mission for Syria.
"We think there may have been a misunderstanding because yesterday, when we discussed that the Security Council needs to give a green light to a monitoring mission, the idea ... was that it should be a very brief resolution to set the process in motion," Russia's U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin said earlier today. "My preference is ... to set boots on ground in Syria and then prepare both the resolution and the technical capability of the Secretariat..."
Western diplomats said that it was necessary to spell out the monitors' rights in advance to avoid their falling into the same trap that a team of Arab League monitors fell into earlier this year. Syria blocked the Arab monitors from bringing in their own secure communications equipment and restricted their freedom of movement.
"This mission, the advance mission, and the main observer mission have to be set on the right course, so we have to spell out the conditions," said Germany's U.N. ambassador, Peter Wittig. "A U.N. observer mission should never be a pawn in technical games, that's why it's important to set out the conditions and this is what we are working on today."
The Security Council negotiations played out as the shaky cease-fire completed its second day, with scattered exchanges of violence, and tens of thousands of protesters returned to the streets in a reenergized challenge to President Bashar al-Assad's rule.
Kofi Annan appealed to the Security Council on Wednesday to move swiftly to authorize an advance mission of U.N. monitors, primarily recruited from other U.N. missions in the region. Annan's spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, said that the cease-fire was being "relatively respected" and that an advance team of 12 monitors are awaiting council approval to head off to Syria at a moment's notice.
"The team is on standby to board the plane and to get themselves on the ground as soon as possible," Fawzi told reporters in Geneva, according to the Associated Press. "We hope both sides will sustain this calm, this relative calm."
But the council was unable to give the green light on Friday night. After a lengthy negotiation, France's and Germany's U.N. envoys emerged from the council to announce plans to vote on a Western-backed draft resolution at 11:00 am on Saturday. Russia's U.N. envoy Churkin said that while the council had "some good discussions" but that he "was not completely satisfied with the outcome."
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United States, said the talks had been "serious" and that "everyone was trying to roll up their sleeves and deal with this responsibly." But she declined to say whether a deal was possible. "I don't want to predict. We've been to this movie too many times."
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The U.N. Security Council issued a mild statement deploring North Korea's failed launch of a satellite rocket on Friday, but stopped short of imposing any fresh penalties on the government for its defiance of previous U.N. demands.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, who is presiding over the council's rotating presidency this month, said that Pyongyang had violated two U.N. Security Council resolutions banning missile launches.
"The Security Council deplored this launch, which is in violation of Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874," said Rice, speaking on behalf of the 15-nation council. "Members of the Security Council agree to continue consultations on an appropriate response."
The mild response reflected concern among key council members, including China, that a harsh rebuke could complicate international efforts to contain the nuclear power, prompting North Korea to respond with a fresh nuclear test. It set the stage for lengthy discussions at the U.N. on how to calibrate the council's response.
U.S. officials say they are unlikely to pursue a new round of tough sanctions on Pyongyang in the Security Council, but that they would seek to tighten the enforcement of existing U.N. sanctions. The White House, meanwhile, announced it was backing away from plans to provide humanitarian assistance to North Korea.
The move followed a public rebuke of North Korea from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's office. A spokesman for Ban, who is in Geneva, issued a statement saying that "despite its failure, the launch of the so-called "application satellite" by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) on 13 April, 2012, is deplorable as it defies the firm and unanimous stance of the international community."
"The Secretary General renews his call on DPRK authorities to work towards building confidence with neighboring countries and improving the life of its people," read the statement. Ban also reaffirmed his commitment to "helping the people of DPRK, in particular, addressing the serious food and nutrition needs of the most vulnerable."
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Syria's decision today to hold its fire may prove yet short-lived, confirming critics' contention that President Bashar al-Assad simply cannot be trusted to fulfill his commitments.
But for one brief instance, Syria's action helped to turn the narrative on its head, providing a rare opportunity for Damascus and its closest friends to make the case that a consensual, softball approach to the crisis could bear fruit.
China's U.N. ambassador, Li Baodong, who has scarcely uttered a word in public on the Syrian crisis, stepped out before the Security Council stakeout today to claim credit, in Mandarin and English, for his government's role in pursuing a cease-fire. In a lengthy exchange with reporters, he pointed out that special envoy Kofi Annan had "spoken highly" of China's role in backing his mediation efforts.
Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, said that today's development vindicated his government's much-maligned stance on Syria and that the world should recognize Moscow was right. He said that top Russian diplomats, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, had intervened at critical moments in the diplomatic process to help Annan secure Syria's support for his plan, and that its contribution had been unfairly dismissed by the press. "You should give us credit; we have every right to be given credit," Churkin said.
Syria's U.N. envoy, Bashar al-Jaafari, said that the world's recognition of its decision to stop shooting only provided further evidence that it is Syria alone that has pursued peace in good faith, while its critics -- from Washington to Istanbul to Riyadh -- have been seeking to "torpedo" Annan's peace efforts by providing support to opposition military forces. While most observers agreed that the cease-fire was largely holding, both Damascus and the opposition accused the other of some violations.
"The credibility of the Syrian government has been confirmed," Jaafari told reporters. "There are still some officials who are totally disappointed and frustrated ... because the cessation of violence succeeded this morning."
The effort to secure plaudits for pursuing a political settlement contrasts with the blocking role these governments have played in recent months in downplaying and minimizing the brutality of Syria's crackdown on anti-government protesters, a campaign of violence that has left more than 9000 dead, mostly of them unarmed civilians, during the past 13 months.
In a closed-door briefing to the U.N. Security Council, Annan reminded the council's 15 members that he personally visited a refugee camp this week in Turkey, which absorbed a flood of more than 6,000 Syrian refugees during the past five days, victims of a government assault on Syrian towns.
"As of this afternoon, as of this moment, the situation looks calmer. We are following it very closely," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in Geneva today. "The world is watching, however, with skeptical eyes since many promises previously made by the government of Syria had not been kept. The onus is on the government of Syria to prove that their words will be matched by their deeds at this time."
But while Ban cautioned that a single gunshot could unravel the cease-fire, pitching the country into an even more deadly civil war, he made it clear that the world's key powers would now have to approach the conflict in a new way, and would now be required to apply pressure on the opposition to make compromises in a diplomatic process that places Assad's government at the center of action.
"Today's lessening of violence in Syria is a first, fragile step towards peace that needs to be strengthened and sustained," said British Foreign Secretary William Hague. "The Syrian government has a record of failing to keep its promises. It has the opportunity to change that now: it should seize it. We need to see visible, verifiable, and indisputable signs of change. The opposition must also ensure that they adhere to the cease-fire and work to strengthen and broaden it."
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U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will appeal to the Security Council to authorize "as soon as possible" the deployment of a U.N. monitoring mission in Syria as the country witnessed a rare pause in violence, according to a statement by special emissary Kofi Annan. But Ban cautioned that the cease-fire remained extremely "fragile" and could unravel in the face of a single gunshot.
"I am encouraged by reports that the situation in Syria is relatively quiet and that the cessation of hostilities appears to be holding," Annan said in a statement. "Syria is apparently experiencing a rare moment of calm on the ground. This is bringing much-needed relief and hope to the Syrian people who have suffered so much for so long in this brutal conflict. This must now be sustained."
Annan, a former U.N. secretary general who serves as the joint representative for the United Nations and the Arab League, said that he hoped the swift deployment of a U.N. mission would "allow us to move quickly to launch a serious political dialogue that will address the concerns and aspirations of the Syrian people."
Today's developments elicited a rare expression of optimism among U.N. diplomats who have been frustrated by a pattern of unfulfilled promises by President Bashar al-Assad. They remained skeptical about the Syrian government's commitment to abide by the cease-fire. "The world is watching, however, with skeptical eyes, since many promises previously made by the government of Syria have not been kept," Ban told reporters in Geneva.
The Syrian government agreed on April 1 to endorse Annan's six-point peace plan, which called on the Syrian government to halt its use of heavy weapons by April 10, and to begin withdrawing its heavy weapons from urban centers. But Syria intensified its armed assault against several restive cities during the past week, raising concern that the Annan peace plan was on life support.
Bassma Kodmani, spokeswoman for the opposition Syrian National Council, meanwhile, said that the Syria had only "partially observed" the ceasefire, according to Reuters. "There is no evidence of significant withdrawal." But the vague language of Annan's cease-fire deal, which has no deadline for Syria to complete the withdrawal of government forces, appeared to grant Syria considerable leeway to maintain a military presence in towns linked to the opposition.
Still, Annan believes today's pause in fighting provides an opportunity to get a U.N. mission into the country to help reinforce the cease-fire, and potentially lead to the implementation of the other elements of the peace plan, including political talks, the release of political prisoners, access for humanitarian aid workers and journalists, and the right to hold peaceful demonstrations. Norwegian Maj. Gen. Robert Mood has been in Damascus for the past week planning the terms of a monitoring mission consisting of about 250 international monitors, mostly recruited from existing U.N. missions in neighboring countries.
Mood told Norway's NTB news agency, according to Reuters, that he is "cautiously optimistic" about the prospects for a successful mission. But he cautioned that "Both sides are plagued by a very high degree of mutual suspicion. It's terribly difficult to cross that abyss."
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Israeli officials have long expressed deep skepticism about the impact of international sanctions alone in compelling Iran's leadership to abandon what it sees as its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Israel's U.N. ambassador, Ron Prosor, told a group of reporters on Friday at the Israeli mission to the United Nations, that he believes Tehran is as committed as ever to a nuclear weapon.
But he also credited international sanctions, particularly a set of financial measures imposed by the United States and the European Union, with exacting a steep enough price that it may force Tehran to change its behavior. Prosor cited a recent decision by the Belgium-based Society of World Wide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, or Swift, blocking dozens of Iranian firms from doing business as the latest evidence the sanctions are having an impact.
"I think the international community at this stage has really moved forward and have made at least clear to Tehran that there is a certain price tag for continuing" its pursuit of nuclear weapons, he said. "The decision on SWIFT, the issue of the sanctions by the EU, are important and have an effect on Iran...I do see really a movement on the international stage, especially on the economic side...It's much more effective than people think and it might change, hopefully it might change behavior patterns if we continue with it."
Prosor made the remarks at a press breakfast with more than a dozen international reporters at the Israeli mission, providing a hint that Israel may be stepping away from its campaign to rally support for military strikes against Iran. He also used the meeting to underscore anti-Israeli bias at the United Nations Human Rights Council, and highlight the need for humanitarian assistance in Syria.
Asked to comment on a recent report in Foreign Policy that Israel had reached an agreement with Azerbaijan, which borders Iran, to use its airbases in the event of a possible air strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. "I'm happy to say I don't know. That happens to me once in while but the answer is I just don't know. I just don't know,"
Prosor said that his government's chief priority in neighboring Syria, where a government crackdown on protesters entered its second year, "is to focus on anything that could be done in order to relieve and help on the humanitarian side these people in Syria who are being slaughtered." But Prosor declined to respond to a question on what kind of government Israel would prefer to see in Syria.
"Israeli politicians don't say anything on Syria and it is nor coincidental that they don't speak," he said. "Anything we would say on this will be used and abused against the people that I think we want to help. Having said that...I want to formally say clearly here that Bashar Assad does not have the moral authority to lead his people."
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As Kofi Annan pursues a cease-fire to end the violence in Syria, the U.N.'s peacekeeping department has been developing plans for a mission of about 250 unarmed, international observers to monitor the peace and hopefully to buy some time for political talks to forge a lasting settlement.
But what can U.N. monitors achieve in a country like Syria, where a recent experiment involving roughly 150 poorly equipped, ill-trained Arab League monitors ended in failure? Observers say there are few precedents for the deployment of U.N. observers in the middle of an internal conflict, particularly one like Syria where the armed opposition does not operate under a single chain of command.
The experience of the Arab League monitors, who withdrew in January, provides some clues as to the challenges. In the initial stages of that observation mission, Syria erected a series of bureaucratic hurdles, preventing the outside observers from importing their own communications equipment and limiting their travel within the country.
Even if U.N. observers are able to overcome these hurdles, how would a small group of unarmed foreign observers ensure their independence from government security forces and its own protection from spoilers, including a resurgent al Qaeda?
The British government has begun exploring a series of ideas with the U.N. peacekeeping department about the shape of the new mission, which would likely draw staff from existing U.N. missions in the Middle East, including the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force, the U.N. Truce Supervision Force, and the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon.
A small team of U.N. peacekeeping planners are headed to Damascus in the coming days to begin preliminary discussions with the government, although a date has not been set.
U.N. officials and outside observers say they expect a long protracted negotiation with the Syrian government over the mission's terms. Both Annan, a former U.N. peacekeeping chief, and one of his principle deputies, Jean-Marie Guehenno, who succeeded Annan as the U.N.'s top peacekeeping official, know better than most the perils of deploying U.N. missions that lack resources or a firm enough mandate to succeed.
In Geneva, Annan's spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, meanwhile, expressed concern that there has been no halt to the fighting in Syria, and called on Assad to take the first step. "We expect him to implement this plan immediately," Fawzi told reporters, according to the Associated Press. "Clearly, we have not seen a cessation of hostilities and this is of great concern."
"The government must stop first and then discuss a cessation of hostilities with the other side," Fawzi added. "We are appealing to the stronger party to make a gesture of good faith.... The deadline is now."
Richard Gowan, an expert on U.N. peacekeeping at New York University's Center for International Cooperation, said that there will be an "unstoppable pressure" from key powers to deploy foreign monitors in order to show that the world is responding to the violence.
"It will be really tempting to get some observers into the country and say this is a sign of progress. I would urge caution because you could be setting yourself up for another failure," Gowan said. "The Syrians are well placed to manipulate the monitors as they come in."
The U.N. has a long history of deploying observer missions, but they have traditionally been used to monitor cease-fire agreements, or border disputes between states, not internal conflicts. However, there are some precedents.
In 1998, Richard Holbrooke, President Bill Clinton's chief Balkans envoy, negotiated an agreement with the Serbs to deploy the Kosovo Verification Mission in Kosovo, a team of 1,400 observers that enjoyed considerable freedom to monitor violence in the former Serb territory. But the mission, which was established by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, was unable to stem the violence, and was withdrawn the following year when NATO decided to bomb Serbia into compliance. In 2007, the U.N. sent about 180 unarmed U.N. monitors to Nepal, to ensure that Maoist insurgents remained in a set of military cantonments through the country's election. And last year, the U.N. planned to send a couple of hundred monitors to Libya, to support efforts to broker a cease-fire between the government of Muammar al-Qaddafi and the insurgents. The plan was ditched after Qaddafi's government collapsed last fall.
Annan is scheduled to brief the U.N. Security Council on Monday, April 2, by video conference from Geneva on the latest diplomatic development on Syria, and may broach discussions of a monitoring mission. Security Council members say that a new monitoring mission will require the adoption of a new Security Council resolution, but that no one is expected to table one until receiving a request from Annan.
In the meantime, council diplomats have been putting a series of questions on the mandate of a new mission before Annan and the U.N. peacekeeping department. Most importantly, European officials are seeking assurance that U.N. monitors are used to bolster a political transition, not simply to enforce a stand off that favors the Syrian government.
Gowan offers his own recommendations. For a new monitoring mission in Syria to be a success, six basic operational criteria must be fulfilled:
1. Freedom of movement: The Arab League observer mission was under constant supervision by Syrian security personnel, and could not travel to trouble-spots without their minders. To have even minimal credibility, the U.N. mission would need to be able to make monitoring visits on their own initiative. The team would need their own vehicles (probably armored 4x4s) and independent close-protection officers. The Syrian authorities will argue that the observers should notify them in advance of trips for safety's sake. Nonetheless, the U.N, should insist on the right on to make spot-checks with 2-3 hours notice at most.
2. A secure HQ and communications: The Arab observers were headquartered in a hotel, and had use Syrian communications systems to contact the Arab League in Cairo, inevitably compromising their reporting. A credible U.N. mission would need an independent base -- off-limits to Syrian authorities -- and the ability to send encrypted communications to New York. A neutral government such as Switzerland could provide military communications experts to support the mission. It might not take long for the Syrians (with Russian and Iranian help) to crack the codes, but this would at least signal the observers' autonomy.
3. Access to Syrian artillery and armor: The use of big guns and tanks against civilians has been a defining dimension of the conflict. While the Arab observers were meant to oversee the removal of heavy weapons from urban areas, the Syrian Army only made cosmetic withdrawals. Annan and the Security Council have now called for the "end the use of heavy weapons in population centers, and [to] begin pullback of military concentrations in and around population centers." U.N. monitors would need to prioritize tracking artillery and armored units, possibly even embedding personnel in their bases away from cities.
4. Satellites and drones: Heavy weapons can also be tracked by drones and satellites -- which the United States has done already -- and the observer mission should make use of these sources. Damascus will object to the U.N. turning to the United States for aerial or satellite intelligence, but the U.N. can get imagery from other sources and has its own satellite imagery analysts. The EU also has a satellite center that could be put at the U.N.'s disposal, and Belgium has a small fleet of drones that it has previously deployed in European peace operations.
5. Special investigators: While "observing" and "monitoring" sound like passive activities, the U.N. could also deploy investigative teams to gain more detailed information on specific incidents -- including bombings and raids by rebel forces. While it's very hard to gather reliable evidence in war zones, small teams of forensic and ballistics specialists may be able to piece together basic facts on new massacres. Although not much of a deterrent in the short term, the presence of these teams may make it possible to hold killers from both sides accountable later, as drawn-out prosecutions in the Balkans have shown.
6. An emergency exit strategy: However effectively the U.N. monitors might perform, there will still be a risk that the situation in Syria will deteriorate again -- and either the government or opposition could try to seize some observers as hostages. There will need to be a military plan to get the monitors out at short notice. Russia, with its base at Tartus, is best-placed to arrange such a plan and could offer to do so as a sign of goodwill towards Kofi Annan. The U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon and the Turkish armed forces -- and possibly Britain, which has forces stationed nearby in Cyprus -- could lend a helping hand.
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Kofi Annan today announced a rare breakthrough in his efforts to halt the bloodshed in Syria, saying that President Bashar al-Assad had endorsed his six-point diplomatic plan calling for an immediate cease-fire, access for international aid workers, and the start of political talks leading to a multiparty democracy.
But there was a sense among observers that we've been here before.
Last November, the Syrian government signed a deal with the Arab League to withdraw its military forces from besieged towns and to accept a "road map" for political reform. But Assad never implemented the pact. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, meanwhile, has become so weary of Assad's promises to rein in his security forces that he hasn't even bothered to call him in several months. "He made all these promises," Ban told reporters last September, "but these promises have become now broken promises."
Indeed, many Syria observers believe Assad is seeking to bog down Annan and his team of mediators in a fruitless diplomatic process that will provide him with political cover to continue his military campaign to crush the opposition. Even today, the Local Coordination Committees, an activist group that monitors the violence, said 20 people had died by mid afternoon, according to a report in the New York Times, and fighting was reported along the Lebanese border.
"Assad has everything to gain from accepting the Annan initiative," said Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. "The president is looking for a way to end the uprising without stepping down, or turning power over to the revolutions. The new U.N. peace plan does not insist on having Assad handing over power, which is why Assad finds it acceptable.... He can play along with this because ultimately he needs to slow down the stampede towards greater and greater sanctions and [secure international] pressure on the opposition not to send weapons inside Syria."
Despite the grim assessment, many observers say that the diplomatic campaign to rein in President Assad has been gaining strength, driven in part by waning interest in the West for military intervention in Syria.
Russia and China, Syria's strongest defenders at the United Nations, have thrown their political weight behind Annan's peace initiative, prompting Assad to commit to a deal he had rejected two weeks ago.
The fragmented Syrian opposition attracted hundreds of anti-Assad representatives, including the exiled Muslim Brotherhood, to a meeting in Istanbul. Turkey and Norway, meanwhile, have shuttered their embassies in Damascus, furthering the country's diplomatic isolation.
"I do think conditions for diplomacy at the international level are better than last time," said Marc Lynch, a fellow Foreign Policy blogger and Middle East scholar at George Washington University. "Am I optimistic? No. My best guess is that Assad will try to play this the same way he played the Arab League plan," he said. But he "may find himself with less room for maneuver."
Lynch and other observers say that President Assad's standing -- which has been boosted by a series of military victories against the opposition -- risks the prospect of being weakened through a political process. "Assad is clearly winning at the military level," Lynch said. But his military gains, he added are "empty tactical victories. At a broader level, all signs say to me he is losing control, losing legitimacy."
Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at New York University's Center for International Cooperation, writes today in World Politics Review that the renewed push for a diplomatic outcome reflects a realization by "all the main players in the debate, that their disputes, which had been poisonous since mid-2011, were spiraling out of control." But Gowan also voiced concern that it may be too late for Annan's plan to succeed.
Russia and China, which have seen their standing in the region suffer from repeated vetoes in the Security Council, saw Annan's diplomatic overture as a way out of their isolation. And Western powers, reluctant to intervene militarily in Syria if diplomacy fails, are showing renewed interest in promoting a U.N. diplomatic effort to end the crisis.
But Western diplomats also struck a cautious note. "The Assad regime's acceptance of joint United Nations and Arab League Special Envoy Kofi Annan's six point plan would represent a significant first step towards bringing an end to the violence and the bloodshed, but only if it is genuinely and seriously meant," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said after the announcement. "This has not been the case with previous commitments the regime has made. The key will be concrete implementation that brings a cessation of all hostilities and leads to a genuine political transition accompanied by freedom of access for humanitarian assistance and the media, and the release of political prisoners. We will continue to judge the Syrian regime by its practical actions not by its often empty words."
Landis remained even more doubtful about the prospects for a peaceful outcome, saying the opposition has failed to present a viable alternative to the regime while the ongoing crisis is bringing greater economic hardship to ordinary Syrians.
"I see Syrians starving to death and Assad remaining in power for a long time," he said. "Even if he can destroy the opposition, he can't put Syria back together again. But the country will ultimately collapse in disorder."
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Kofi Annan today raised the prospect of President Bashar al-Assad's stepping down as part of a final peace deal, marking the first time the international envoy on Syria has hinted that his mediation efforts might lead to a change in leadership.
But there were no signs that Assad was prepared to yield to international pressure to step aside or to even halt a military campaign that drew fresh claims by opposition activists that government forces continue to shell parts of the city of Homs.
Asked by a reporter in Moscow whether Assad should resign, Annan, who is serving as the joint envoy on Syria for the Arab League and the United Nations, said: "That is one of the issues the Syrians will have to decide. Our effort is to help the Syrians come to the table and find a way out of all this. It may in the end come to that, but it's not up to me, it's up to the Syrians."
So far, Annan has not been able to secure agreements from either the Syrian government or the armed opposition to accept a U.N. supervised cease-fire agreement. But he held high-level meeting with top officials from Russia, including President Dmitry Medvedev over the weekend, and headed out today for a visit to Beijing for meetings with top Chinese officials tomorrow, part of a last ditch effort to persuade Assad to rein in his security forces and negotiate a political settlement with the opposition.
"Time is of the essence. This cannot be allowed to drag on indefinitely," he told reporters at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow. "The message I would also like to put out today is that the transitional winds blowing today cannot be easily resisted, or cannot be resisted for long. The only way to deal with this is through reform, through change that respects democratic principles, individual dignity, the rule of law and human rights."
Annan is seeking to enlist the support of top Russian and Chinese leaders in ratcheting pressure on the Syrian leader to halt a year-long crackdown on anti-government demonstrators that has left more than 8,000 people dead and delivered the country to the early phases of a civil war.
Annan said he was confident that Russia, which has been accused by the United States and other Western partners of abetting President Assad, is acting in good faith to achieve a peaceful outcome to the crisis. "They are prepared ... to work with me not only in supporting the approach and the plans I've put on the table but also in encouraging the parties to move in the same direction ... to settle this issue peacefully."
"I think they do have influence," he added, "and they have indicated they will use that influence to help me constructively."
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After months of discord, the U.N. Security Council last week coalesced around a diplomatic initiative led by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, presenting a rare show of unity in the face of President Bashar al-Assad's bloody repression of anti-government protesters.
But has the deal brought the world any closer to a democratic future under a leader that enjoys popular support? A 6-point political settlement, authored by Annan and endorsed this week by the U.N. Security Council, is ambiguous about the fate of President Assad.
And it has done little to change the realities on the ground, where the Syrian government has continued to secure military gains against an armed opposition that is running desperately low on ammunition.
"All the evidence ... points to Assad thinking basically that there is a military solution to this crisis, that given time and space he can crush the dissent," said one council diplomat. "We don't buy that. We think they squash it in one place, as they did recently in Homs, it pops up somewhere else, as we saw in Damascus."
But the official said that Assad's continuing defiance could provide a "hook" to bring the matter back before the Security Council, where it can adopt tougher measures against the regime.
The U.N. Security Council members, including U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, have trumpeted the council's latest statement as a modest step that offers the best hope of ending the violence in Syria, opening the floodgates for humanitarian assistance and starting talks on a political transition, something that both sides have so far refused to do.
But for many outside observers the promise of sterner action remains uncertain, particularly given veto-wielding Russia's support for Assad, and it may too late to alter the course of development through diplomacy.
"This is a plan which, if it had been put on the table six weeks ago, would have offered Assad away out for the regime. But it has much less reason to bargain at a time where the regime is scoring successive military victories," said Richard Gowan, an expert on the United Nations at New York University's Center for International Cooperation. "The problem is that the Syrian military is continuing to create facts on the ground and Annan and the Security Council are inevitably struggling to keep up."
The Washington Post editorial page put it more bluntly on March 22: Annan's initiative, it reasoned, "will likely provide time and cover for the regime of Bashar al-Assad to continue using thanks and artillery to assault Syrian cities and indiscriminately kill civilians. That's exactly what the regime was doing Thursday -- pounding the city of Hama, where at least 20 people have been reported killed in army attacks in the past two days."
U.N. officials are convinced that Assad cannot end the uprising through military means, and that he will ultimately need to bargain the terms of his political future. "If he thinks he can weather this storm...he [has made] a serious misjudgment," Ban Ki-moon recently told a small group of reporters over lunch. "He cannot continue like this. He has gone too deep, too far."
In the meantime, Annan has urged the armed opposition's foreign sympathizers, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, not to supply anti-government forces with weapons and other military supplies. Annan urged Russian President Dmitry Medvedev over the weekend to press Assad to accept his peace proposal, and reportedly met with top Chinese officials in Beijing on Sunday to secure a similar commitment.
Annan told the Security Council earlier this month that Assad's initial response to his diplomatic entreaties have been "disappointing." But he placed hope that a united Security Council could turn the diplomatic tide.
"The stronger and clearer the message you can collectively send," he told the council in a closed door briefing on March 16, "the better the chance that we can begin to shift the worrying dynamics of the conflict."
Engineering such a change may be complicated by Assad's own calculation of the personal dangers of peace. "There are risks for him in that he may fear he will lose on the negotiating table what he through fighting," said Gowan. "He may have concluded it is simply best to create a military fait accompli."
"The argument one hears advanced is that the damage to his political base has been so great he cannot survive long in office even if he wins on the battlefield," Gowan added. "Where as long as the fighting continues he has the upper hand, and so will never back down."
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A key member of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry into alleged crimes in Syria resigned today, citing Syria's ongoing refusal to permit the team into the country to carry out its investigations.
Yakin Ertuk, a Turkish national who serves as one of the commission's three members, made the announcement in a meeting in New York with non-government organizations, according to a source who attended the meeting.
“I resigned today from the Commission of Inquiry because of Syria’s refusal to grant the Commission access. This is one of the main obstacles that hampered the work of the Commission. Without access to Syria the work of the commission is very difficult.”
The move comes as the U.N. Human Rights Council decided today to extend the commission's inquiry, allowing it to continue its investigation at least through September. The commission has largely relied on human rights groups, opposition elements, and the testimony of Syrian refugees who fled the violence, primarily into Jordan and Turkey.
The three-member commission, chaired by a Brazilian diplomat and legal scholar, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, traveled to New York this week to press the U.N. Security Council to use its influence to convince the government to invite the team into the country to conduct its investigation. Karin Konig Abuzayd is the third member.
"I hope that our friends in the Security Council will try to convince the Syrian government that it is in its own interest that we enter Syria," Pinheiro told reporters this week.
Last month, the commission concluded that Syria's top military commanders and government officials have committed widespread and systematic human rights violations amounting to crimes against humanity. It presented the U.N. Human Rights Council with a secret list of the names of individuals and military units suspected of bearing greatest responsibility for orchestrating or carrying out these abuses.
The report, which was released this morning in Geneva, represents a devastating account of the Syrian government's role in using excessive force -- including the indiscriminate shelling of restive towns -- to crush an uprising that began in March 2011, as a peaceful protest movement. The commission also documented rights violations by members of the armed opposition movement formed by military defectors, which has drawn increasingly from members of the general population.
But it said the overwhelming majority of abuses were carried out by government security forces and pro-government militias. "The government has manifestly failed in its responsibility to protect the populations; its forces have committed widespread, systematic and gross human rights violations, amounting to crimes against humanity, with the apparent knowledge and consent of the highest levels of the State" reads the commission report. It added: "anti-government armed groups have also committed abuses, although not comparable in scale and organization with those carried out by the state."
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Last week, Khulood Badawi, a U.N. relief worker in Jerusalem, tweeted a photograph of an injured Palestinian girl, saying "Palestine is bleeding. Another child killed by Israel. Another father carrying a child into a grave in Gaza."
The photograph, it turned out, was more than six years old -- captured by a Reuters photographer, and depicting a child who had been injured in a swing accident.
"She was not killed by Israeli forces," Ron Prosor, Israel's U.N. ambassador, wrote in a letter to the U.N. emergency coordinator, Valerie Amos, in which he demanded the woman be fired "Although Ms. Badawi's portrayal of this photo was clearly a blatant falsehood, her post became the top tweet for anything related to Gaza on Twitter."
The U.N.'s chief spokesman, Martin Nesirky, today confirmed that the tweet was not true, adding that "it is regrettable that an OCHA [Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] staff member had posted information on her personal Twitter profile which was both false and which reflected on issues that are related to her work."
"The opinions expressed in her Twitter profile in no way reflect the views of OCHA, nor were they sanctions by OCHA," Nesirky said. "OCHA strives to ensure its neutrality and impartiality in all aspects of its work and it is important that the private actions of our staff do not undermine these principles in countries in which we work."
The controversy comes as Israel is engaged in a series of violent exchanges with the Palestinians, with Palestinian militants firing more than 100 rockets at Israeli civilians, wounding several civilians. Israel has retaliated with a series of air strikes that have killed 25 Palestinians, according to the Associated Press.
Badawi, an Israeli citizen and long time Palestinian activist before she was hired by the United Nations, did not respond to a request for comment left on her Twitter account, which she stopped using on the day her employers learned about the erroneous tweet.
But her Twitter feed links to a story by another woman, Diana Alzeer, who claimed she posted the photo on her own site, mistakenly thinking that the photograph was recent. Alzeer ran a correction after learning that the photo was old. Badawi subsequently deleted the entry on her Twitter feed.
Israel's U.N. ambassador has cited the erroneous tweet as cause for Badawi's dismissal, saying that she "not only failed to remain impartial; she actively engaged in the demonization of Israel."
But Israel apparently got questioned by some of its Twitter followers for posting an old photograph to illustrate the current violence. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's spokesman, Ofir Gendelman, posted a photograph showing "an Israeli woman lying on the ground with her two children, their hands over their heads, their faces squashed into the pavement," according to the Associated Press.
Gendelman wrote that the picture captures the moment "when a rocket fired by terrorists from Gaza is about to hit their home." The photo, AP reported, was from 2009. "I never stated that the photo was current," Gendelman told followers who pointed out that the photograph was old. It illustrates the fear that people in southern Israel live in."
U.N. officials, meanwhile, would not say whether Badawi would keep her job.
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Ed.: this post has been modified to correct an error. Badawi is an Israeli citizen, posted by OCHA in Jerusalem, not Gaza.
Mukesh Kapila, a former U.N. envoy to Sudan who was among the first to raise the alarm over atrocities in Darfur, recently returned to Sudan, sneaking into the Nuba Mountains to assess humanitarian conditions in a province that has seen violence and been cut off from international assistance.
The Nuba Mountains have been the center of fighting between Sudanese forces and rebels allied with newly independent South Sudan. Sudan's government in Khartoum, which launched a major offensive aimed at crushing the rebellion, has refused to allow U.N. humanitarian aid workers into the region to witness what is happening and assist hundreds of thousands facing looming famine.
Kapila and other Sudan peace activists, including film star George Clooney, have traveled to the Nuba mountains in recent weeks to raise awareness about the plight of the Nubans, and pressed government officials to take dramatic steps to avert hunger.
"People are living on rats, wild flowers, and fruits," Kapila said in a telephone interview with Turtle Bay. Kapila, who was representing the advocacy group Aegis Trust, made the case that the situation has grown so desire that foreign donors need to bypass the United Nations delivery system and provide direct assistance to local groups, some of which have links to the rebels, to stave off a massive humanitarian calamity. If some aid is diverted to armed fighters challenging the government so be it.
"In my view, cross-border operations are necessary," Kapila said. "Those who don't want to do it don't have the moral high ground to stand in the way.
The United States has warned that the country this month will reach a phase four-level food emergency, one stage short of full-out famine, without a major relief effort. And American officials have been quietly building up food stocks in the area and are considering the prospects of supporting cross-border aid distribution operations that are opposed by the Sudanese government, according to senior U.N. officials and private aid groups.The move follows an increasing push by a group of seven human rights advocacy groups, including the Enough Project and United to End Genocide, which appealed to Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, last month to support cross-border aid. "Counter-intuitively, sending aid into Sudan by any means necessary -- backed by heavy press for humanitarian corridors -- might be the best way to compel the regime to lift its aid embargo," Enough Project founder John Prendergast and Clooney wrote in December.
Officials say that Rice is sympathetic to the argument for cross-border operations, which were used to stave off hunger in the Nuba Mountains during the 1990s. The relief assistance then was channeled through several Norwegian and American relief organizations with operations in the area.
Princeton Lyman, the U.S.'s special envoy for Sudan, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today that while the United States would prefer the U.N. secure Khartoum's consent for aid deliveries it is considering doing it without it. "Should Khartoum agree to allow access to international humanitarian organizations across the lines of fighting, there must be swift progress on implementation. If necessary, we will examine ways to provide indirect support to Sudanese humanitarian actors to reach the most vulnerable. We have monitoring and accountability tools to make sure that civilians would be the beneficiaries of these activities. Nevertheless, an international program, as proposed by the U.N. and its partners, is the best means to reach the most people and we continue to urge the government to approve it."
But the proposal has faced stiff resistance from the U.N.'s chief humanitarian relief agencies, including the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and several humanitarian relief groups with operations in Sudan. They fear that the effort would provoke the government into moving against relief agencies, and would undermine the chief principle of humanitarian neutrality.
"I've made it clear on many occasions that I do not support cross-border operations unless they are agreed by both governments, the governments of Sudan and South Sudan," said Valerie Amos, the U.N. humanitarian relief coordinator. "And indeed the government of Sudan have said that they would see any kind of cross-border operation as a hostile act."
Amos said that she has proposed that the Sudanese government allow international relief workers to have "cross line" access to displaced civilians in rebel-controlled areas of South Kordofan by crossing through government-controlled territory, not through the border. The anti-government rebels, known as the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (North), have agreed to the plan, but Khartoum has not provided a response.
The Sudanese government kicked the United Nations out of the Nuba Mountains last summer, arguing that their services were no longer needed following the end of the countries' decades-long civil war.
A landmark 2005 peace deal ending Sudan's bloody civil war between north and south paved the way for the latter's independence, but it never resolved the fate of their Nuban allies, who remain subject to northern rule.
The local forces were supposes to disarm following a "popular consultation" that was intended to determine the regions relationship with Khartoum. But the rival forces were never integrated, and the popular consultation never took place.
In May, Khartoum ordered the Nuban forces to either turn over their weapons and submit to northern rule or move to the south. A month later, as the world's attention was focused on South Sudan's independence, Khartoum opened its new military front in the Sudanese territory of South Kordofan, in the country's Nuba Mountains region.
The situation in South Kordofan bears some similarities with Darfur, where Sudanese forces, backed by Arab militias, mounted a brutal counterinsurgency campaign -- including large-scale killings and massive displacement of civilians -- against the region's restive tribes. In one ominous twist, South Kordofan's new governor, Ahmed Haroun, a member of Sudan's ruling National Congress Party, is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of committing war crimes against Darfurians.
However, the local forces in South Kordofan are far more heavily armed than their Darfurian counterparts and have exercised control over a large swath of the territory. Sudanese officials charge the Nubans with precipitating the latest round of violence by reinforcing their military presence in recent months and refusing to meet their obligation under previous agreements to disarm and attacking local security outposts.
The fate of Sudan's Nubans has become a growing source of concern among human rights observers. Kapila, who traveled to the Nuban Mountains with a rebel escort, said he witnessed a veritable wasteland.
"What did I see?" he asked. "Basically, as you drive in, you see totally deserted countryside, burnt village after burnt village after burnt village."
The few remaining locals, he said, are terrorized by daily bombings from government Antonov airplanes. In the town of Taroji, he saw two churches hit by overhead bombs, while a local mosque was left untouched. He saw boxes of Mark 4 anti-personnel mines (bearing Farsi writing, and thus apparently of Iranian origin), that had been seized by anti-government forces when they captured the town last month. Spent munitions of Chinese, Russian, Ukrainian, and even U.S. origin were found in towns that faced attacks by government forces.
In the town of Dar, in the Nuba Mountains, he encountered a group of woman collecting water at a pump when an Antonov began its approach, forcing the women to flee to a nearby hill where they sought refugee in hidden nooks, crannies, and caves.
"I was totally paralyzed because I'm not used to Antonovs flying over my head," he said. "These Antonov bombers go around terrorizing the population almost every day."
Kapila said that anti-government forces of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (North), also known as the ninth division, have gradually expanded their control of territory, providing an opening for the delivery of aid from South Sudan.
"These people are being cleared away," Kapila said. If we don't act fast, he added, "we will end up with a situation where Khartoum will delay assistance until it has cleansed the area. The same thing happened in Darfur."
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U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon today pressed the U.N. Security Council to reinforce diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed in Syria, saying that the death toll in the country has now surpassed 8,000.
Speaking at a luncheon with a small group of reporters, Ban urged the Security Council's big powers to reach agreement on a resolution that would call on Syrians to immediately halt the violence there, permit the delivery of humanitarian assistance to besieged communities, and endorse the efforts of his envoy, Kofi Annan, to start a political talks between the government and opposition over the future of the country.
"The Security Council should adopt the resolution immediately," Ban said.
Ban said he told the Security Council's major powers at a luncheon on Monday that he recognizes that "it is a prerogative of the Security Council members" to make its own decision but that "as a secretary general of the United Nations we can not go on like this. The longer you talk, or delay, more and more people, hundreds and even thousands of people will be killed. So there is no time to lose."
Ban said that the wider U.N. community, "including myself," bear part of the responsibility for failing to contain the violence in Syria.
But he said it is "too early to conclude that the U.N. is "not able" to deliver peace, noting that Annan, who met this morning with Syrian opposition leaders, is engaged in intensive diplomatic efforts to broker a deal that could staunch the killing.
Ban said he believes that a Security Council resolution demanding an end to the violence could change Assad's "political psychology."
But he said Syria's security forces, who have used "disproportionate use of force" against the opposition, bear the greatest responsibility for the current violence and that they should be first to halt the killing.
The timing of a cease-fire has become a major sticking point in diplomatic talks. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has insisted that the Syrian government -- as well as the armed opposition -- agree to a simultaneous cease-fire. But Arab and Western governments have insisted that Syria, which has overwhelming military superiority, stop shooting first.
"It is [the] Syrian national security forces ... which started [the killing] so they must stop," Ban said. "Once it is done we will have a means to ensure that opposition will stop the violence." Ban said his three chief priorities in talks were to: "First end the violence, all the violence; second engage in an inclusive dialogue for a political solution; and thirdly, establish an access for humanitarian assistance."
Those key elements omit a key plank of an Arab League proposal that requires President Bashar al-Assad yield some of his powers to a vice president to negotiate the terms of a national unity government, which would be headed by an individual accepted by both sides. Russia, along with China, vetoed a Security Council draft resolution that endorsed that plan, arguing that it would impose a foreign political solution on the Syrians.
The removal of that provision from the U.N.'s diplomatic talking points has led to speculation that Assad may be allowed to remain in power. Asked if Assad had likely survived the calls for his removal, Ban said, "If he thinks he can weather this storm...he [has made] a serious misjudgment...He cannot continue like this. He has gone too deep, too far."
Kofi Annan, meanwhile, wrapped up his talks with the Syrian opposition today and is expected to make an announcement on Wednesday regarding Assad's response to a peace proposal Annan presented him in Damascus earlier this week.
"Once I receive their answer I will know how to react," he said in a statement. "But let me say that the killing and the violence must stop. The Syrian people have gone through a lot, they deserve better. I have made it clear at the beginning of my mission that my main preoccupation is the welfare of the Syrian people and the Syrian nation. We should put the interests of the people at the center of everything that we do. And I know that the strong international community support, the whole world is coming together, is working with us to resolve this situation in Syria, and with goodwill and determination I am hopeful we will make progress."
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Diplomats, by trade, are not naturally funny people.
And the lofty "permanent representatives," as the most senior U.N.-based ambassadors are called, are often among the least funny.
They can come across as a bit too earnest, overly confident, even pompous, and they are usually pitching a cause that doesn't translate well into snappy one-liners. While they may possess masterful negotiating skills they're rarely quick enough on their feet to parry a lethal jab from a hardened comic. And frankly, how does one offer up a riposte when the national honor has been mocked?
But every season, there they are, lining up for appearances on Comedy Central's The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, confident that they can take advantage of a massive audience that could never be reached through a U.N. press conference.
But they commit comedy at their own peril.
Ask Switzerland's U.N. ambassador Peter Maurer, who got skewered by the Daily Show's faux news reporter John Oliver over his country's neutrality during World War II. ("Mr. Ambassador, is that neutral anger, or real anger?") Or Nassir al-Nasser, Qatar's then U.N. ambassador, who got visibly tense when Oliver challenged his pronunciation of "Qatar" and asked him what his country was doing to de-stabilize the Middle East. ("I'll just pause now to gauge the tension. Yep, that's tense; that is very tense indeed.")
Then there's the big screen, where the South Park creators have made a habit of lampooning U.N. officials or diplomats, including Hans Blix, the former U.N. weapons inspectors, who was thrown into a shark tank by Kim Jong Il in Team America: World Police and torn to pieces for a laugh.
But you get the point.
No one is a choicer prey for a comic than a diplomat, particularly one that speaks with a foreign accent, represents a country with a funny name, and can't take a joke.
But not everyone falls victim.
Remember how the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, playing Ali G coaxed the former Egyptian U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali -- "the geezer" he called him -- to say, and spell out, the French word for human excrement -- "merde." But Boutros Ghali prevailed by playing along, offering his opinion on the funniest language -- "maybe Arabic" -- and patiently explaining why Disneyland can't become a U.N. member: "it's not an independent state."
Susan Rice emerged relatively unscathed in her bout with Stephen Colbert, but not before he got in a zinger about the effort to contain Iran and North Korea's nuclear programs. "Excuse me for interrupting you, but I enjoy it," Colbert said. "Iran is still working toward a nuclear weapon. [North] Korea got their nuclear weapon. I'm just as scared of both of these people. How are we stopping them? I mean, I know sternly worded letters are the bread and butter of the U.N. But maybe we should start typing them in all caps to let them know that we are really angry."
Last week, the Palestinian U.N. envoy, Riyad Mansour, tried his hand at sitting with Oliver, in a skit entitled "Who wants to be a member of the U.N.?" Mansourplayed along with the jokeas Oliver set some "preconditions" for the interview. "First this entire interview must be conducted with the 1967 vocabulary. Is that groovy with you?"
"Groovy? It is agreeable with me. Yes," Responded Mansour.
It moved onto a negotiation over who would control the studio's thermostat. (Thanks to Mondoweiss for the transcript.)
John Oliver: "...is it hot in here?"
Riyad Mansour: "It's fine."
John: "So you're not hot? Because I'm definitely hot."
Riyad: "I am not."
John: "OK, look, Ambassador, I think before we do anything, we are gonna have to come to a provisional status agreement on the temperature in this room."
Riyad: "If you want to lower the temperature, it's fine with me."
John: "But who's going to control the thermostat?"
Riyad: "The thermostat ... should be shared by all of us."
John: "Don't even think about dividing this thermostat."
Riyad: "We will not divide the thermostat, but it should be accessed by all those who cherish it and think that it is a holy place that should be accessed to everyone."
John Oliver [voiceover]: "After three and a half hours of laborious negotiations, we finally came to an agreement."
John: "We agree that at an unspecified time in the future, we will announce a summit to discuss the possibility of discussing a negotiation towards an agreement on temperature. Yes?"
John: "Shake hands for the camera. Thank you, Ambassador, this is a historic day."
Riyad: "Yes indeed."
So, how did Mansour fair for the first half of the program? He remained on message, keeping the focus on Palestine's bid for U.N. membership. And he didn't lose his temper. It helped that Oliver went a little easy on him, avoiding any awkward questions about suicide bombers or rockets from Gaza. So, let's see how he did in the game show portion of the interview.
John: "Hi Riyad where are you from, Riyad?
Riyad: "I'm from Palestine."
John: "Palestine? I've never heard of that. Ok, so question number one: What does U.N. stand for?
Riyad: [Long pause] "United Nations."
John: "That's correct. That's correct, Ryad, Congratulations. That's great. So, how do you think it's going so far?
Riyad: "We're doing good."
John: "Ok... It's the bonus round. You've come all this way. Now do you take what you've won so far ... or do you take what's inside the mystery box"
Riyad: "I take what's inside the mystery box."
John: "He's going to go for the mystery box. Ok good luck. [Opens box and removes a card with the verdict.]
John: "Riyad, oh I'm sorry it's a veto from the U.S."
Riyad: "If we're vetoed once well come back again."
John: "That's the spirit. He'll come back again, next time."
Indeed, if there's a comic willing to poke fun at him, he probably will.
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.