Last week, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution that, at first glance, appeared to add to the council's ongoing effort to combat the spread of deadly weapons.
Introduced at the request of Russia, and later backed by the United States, China, Britain, and France, the resolution calls for an inquiry into the fate of portable surface-to-air missiles, called MANPADS, and other deadly weapons used in the recent struggle to overthrow Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi.
But the resolution included a novel technical provision that could end up complicating the U.N.'s effort to raise public concern about the proliferation of these weapons.
At the insistence of China and Russia, the council resolution instructed a U.N. Security Council sanctions committee, with the help of a U.N. Panel of Experts, to assess the threat posed by the spread of such weapons and to report their findings to the Security Council. In essence, the measure would place the council's independent experts on Libya more firmly under the control of the Security Council's members.
What that means is that the U.N. sanctions committee, which is made up of the council's 15 governments, will decide what is reported, not the independent arms experts that typically investigate illicit weapons transfers. And each council member -- including China, Russia, and the United States -- will have the authority to block any disagreeable finding that comes to light in the course of the investigations.
For years, the U.N. Security Council has sought to rely on Panels of Experts to carry out sensitive and independent investigations into illicit arms trafficking from Angola to Iran to North Korea. The United States and its Western allies have typically fought to protect their independence, fending off attempts by Russia and China to rein them in. (However, the George W. Bush administration once led an effort to place an independent panel on al Qaeda under the Security Council's political control after it reported the U.S.-led war on terror was failing to halt the terrorist groups' activities.)
But the Libya resolution breaks the pattern, essentially providing the Security Council's members with greater scope to influence the findings of the expert panels.
Some observers believe the inclusion of the new provision sets a troubling precedent that not only undercuts the independence of the Libya panel, but that could potentially become a feature of future expert panels, thereby weakening one of the council's most powerful tools for independent investigation and for drawing attention to violations.
A Security Council diplomat from a government that co-sponsored the resolution conceded that the provision would "make reporting more complicated" but that Western powers granted the concession to the Russians because they believed it would bolster their efforts to stem the spread of such weapons to terrorist organizations in the region. The "Russians were tackling a problem that is a real problem," said the diplomat.
The move comes as China and Russia have been stepping up their efforts to block the publication of sensitive reports by U.N. investigators on a range of fronts.
In recent weeks, China and Russia took the unusual step of formally requesting the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Yukiya Amano, stop the release of an upcoming report on Iran's nuclear program that reportedly implicates a Russian scientist in providing nuclear advice to the Iranians. Amano rejected the request.
China, meanwhile, has mounted a series challenges to U.N. Security Council expert panels that have documented the presence of Chinese ammunition in countries ranging from Sudan to Ivory Coast -- in violation of U.N. arms embargoes (though Chinese companies have not been directly implicated in embargo-busting activities there). China has also sought to block the release of reports from U.N. sanctions panels probing the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs.
Germany, which had one of its nationals driven off an expert panel after uncovering evidence of Chinese ammunition in Darfur, Sudan, has stood alone in raising concern about the development. In its explanation of the vote, Germany's U.N. ambassador Peter Wittig said that "as a matter of principle, independent Panels of Experts should report directly to the council."
"Most of the Panels of Experts established
by this council," he added, "report directly to
this council. In order to preserve their independence, Panels of Experts should not be requested to report through committees. The independent expertise of the panels should be [provided] directly to the decision-makers in the council -- without being subject to pre-examination by subsidiary organs. Germany would have preferred a reporting mechanism ... which would have allowed the Panel of Experts to report directly to the council."
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.