For starters, the new year will see diplomatic life return to the U.N.’s glistening, landmark headquarters, as the first phase of a $2 billion renovation comes to an end. Earlier this month, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon moved back into his old 38th floor office, and the U.N. Security Council chamber is set to reopen for business early this year. The U.N. press corps, meanwhile, is set to follow.
But the old, sloppy business of managing the world’s crises will remain. Long-festering diplomatic and military standoffs, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Iran, will be at the top of the agenda for U.N. officials and foreign diplomats. A looming showdown with Islamic extremists, drought, and transnational crime will also tax U.N. military planners in Mali, where a U.N.-backed African peacekeeping mission is preparing for a long slog to restore stability.
In Syria, the potential collapse of President Bashar al-Assad’s government has fueled fears that U.N. blue helmets will be deployed to mitigate a conflict that they cannot contain and which threatens to wreak havoc across the Middle East.
So much for good news, then. With 2012 winding down, Turtle Bay looks at the people and the crises that will define the coming year at the United Nations.
The end of 2012 has not been a particularly high point in the skyrocketing career of Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Republican opposition blocked her quest to ascend to the position of secretary of state, and the U.S. envoy ended the year at the U.N. Correspondent’s Association awards dinner by saying there was no place she was happier to be than Turtle Bay. Behind her, all in good fun, an image of the U.S. State Department appeared on a giant screen.
But while Foggy Bottom is not in Rice’s immediate future, don’t count her out in 2013. Rice’s stoic withdrawal from consideration for the job -- she said a partisan battle over her nomination would distract from the country’s national security priorities -- has likely solidified her standing in the White House.
For the time being, Rice has said she will stay on at her U.N. job and her staff has told colleagues that they intend to remain in New York for several more months. If, as many anticipate, Rice winds up as President Barack Obama’s national security advisor, she may become one of the most powerful officials in that job since Henry Kissinger.
Syria has been on the backburner since last July, when Russia and China cast their third veto at the U.N. Security Council on a Western-backed resolution pressing Assad to yield power to a transitional government.
Earlier this month, rebel gains and high-level talks between the United States and Russia had raised the prospects that diplomatic efforts may return to the U.N. Security Council. Speaking from Damascus on Thursday, U.N.-Arab League Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi pressed the warring parties to agree to a national unity government. "If that is not possible, the other solution could be to go to the Security Council to issue a binding resolution to all," Brahimi added. But Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov provided a downbeat account of the diplomacy, telling reporters that there was "no possibility" of convincing President Assad to stand down.
Plans for a U.N. peacekeeping operation for Syria are in the works. The U.N. peacekeeping department has been developing plans for a mission of several thousand blue helmets to enforce a possible peace deal between Assad's government and the opposition. However, many U.N. officials fear that the time for such a peace accord may have passed and that such a mission will be utterly incapable of containing the sectarian violence that may spread across the country if peace efforts collapse. "People are talking about a divided Syria being split into a number of small states like Yugoslavia," Brahimi said Sunday. "This is not what is going to happen. What will happen is Somalization -- warlords."
RED LINES AND IRAN
The West’s nuclear standoff with Iran moved to the center of the foreign policy debate in the run up to the U.S. presidential election, but it has since fallen off the radar. That may not last long.
There are renewed prospects for continued U.S.-backed talks with Iran over its nuclear program, but no clear indications that a deal is in the making. In the absence of a peace deal, Obama will face growing pressure to draw a clear line in the sand. In his address to the U.N. General Assembly in September, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew his own crude red line on a cartoon drawing of an Iranian nuclear bomb. Netanyahu predicted that line would be crossed some time in spring or summer 2013 -- if Obama doesn’t solve the problem by then, the Israelis may decide their only option is to launch a unilateral strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
THE DRONE WARS
The battle between America’s drone warriors and U.N. human rights advocates is primed to flare up in 2013. In October, Ben Emmerson, the U.N. special rapporteur for counterterrorism and human rights, announced plans to establish a new office in Geneva early next year to investigate alleged killing of civilians in drone attacks.
Emmerson’s effort could hardly be more timely. In addition to well-known drone operations in Pakistan and Yemen, the United States has expanded its drone operations in Africa: Through its airbase in Djibouti, drones are now helping combat warlords and Islamic extremists from Somalia to Mali -- and even in the Central African Republic, the chief operations center for Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army. Emmerson has been a sharp critic of the Obama administration, denouncing efforts by U.S. officials to "provide a legal justification for the drone program of targeted killings in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia."
In response to North Korea’s Dec. 12 launch of a ballistic missile into space, the U.N. Security Council passed a statement condemning Pyongyang’s action as a "clear violation" of past U.N. resolutions.
But a stronger response is on the horizon. In April, after North Korea conducted a failed ballistic missile test, the council threatened to take unspecified action against Pyongyang if the regime conducted another missile launch or nuclear test. It did. So now what? The council put off action until the new year, leaving it to the United States, which favors additional sanctions, and China, which opposes them, to try to reach an agreement. "I don’t know if the United States will manage to turn around Beijing on this one," one council diplomat told me, adding that Chinese U.N. envoy Li Baodong made it "pretty clear a resolution wouldn’t fly."
But some diplomats remain hopeful that the United States can still persuade China to back a tougher response. "To be honest, we don’t have a clear indication how this will play out. But I’m not so pessimistic," said another diplomat. "We need to send the correct message to the new leader of DPRK."
Just before Christmas, the U.N. Security Council authorized the creation of a new African peacekeeping force to help restore democratic rule in Mali, rebuild the nation's military, and help the Malians retake a huge swath of northern territory that is now under the control of a collection of Islamic extremist groups. While it is unlikely that the force will be deployed before next September or October of next year, 2013 will mark a major turning point in U.S. and U.N. involvement in the Sahel, where a dangerous mix of drought, hunger, international crime, and terrorism threatens the stability of the region.
Last month, the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to recognize Palestine as a "non-member observer state," setting the stage for a confrontation with Israel and Washington -- and providing the backdrop for renewed Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank.
Fearful that the deepening dispute will deal a mortal blow to the prospects for a viable Palestinian state, European governments have been pleading with the Obama administration to announce a major new peace initiative following Israeli elections next month. At the United Nations, meanwhile, pressure is building on Israel to halt its latest settlement plans. Earlier this month, representatives from 14 of the council's 15 members, including four European powers, issued statements denouncing Israel's settlements as a threat to a two-state solution.
THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO
Congolese mutineers, known as the M23 movement, routed the national army in eastern Congo in November, seizing the regional capital of Goma. That forced the Congolese government to enter into peace talks with the group's leaders, which includes Bosco Ntaganda, a man wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court.
But this isn’t just a domestic conflict: A U.N. panel known as the Group of Experts has issued numerous reports contending that Rwanda, and to a lesser degree Uganda, have sponsored, equipped, trained, and commanded the mutineers. Efforts to criticize Rwanda -- which will join the Security Council in January for a two-year term – have been stymied by the United States, and further attempts to pressure it to rein in its alleged Congolese proxies appear unlikely as long as Kigali holds a seat in the council. For the time being, African governments operating from the Ugandan capital of Kampala will take the lead in negotiating a peace deal between the M23 and the Congolese government.
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.