- François Grignon is Director of the Africa Program at the International Crisis Group. the opinions expressed are his own. -
Global News Journal
In the sound and fury following the U.N. nuclear governors’ censure of Iran last week for its cover-up of a second uranium enrichment site, and Tehran’s rejection of a nuclear cooperation deal with world powers, a broader, festering issue was obscured.
By Patrick Worsnip
It’s not uncommon for journalists at some point in their careers to cross the barricades and become the people who dish out the news as spokespersons for an organization or firm, rather than being on the receiving end. It requires a different set of skills that can make the transition tough, and a stern test confronts former Reuters correspondent Martin Nesirky, who has just been appointed spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. After a high-flying career at Reuters that saw him fill senior editorial positions in London, Berlin, Moscow and Seoul, Nesirky has had some time to acclimatize to his new role by working for more than three years as spokesman for the 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), based in Vienna. But the move to New York brings much more formidable challenges.
Once a year, North Korea’s often vitriolic rhetoric machine fires up with special intensity to attack those who attack its human rights record. The exchanges usually come toward the end of the year when the U.N. General Assembly approves what has become an annual measure criticising North Korea for having one of the worst rights records in the world.
For years Mohamed ElBaradei, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and outgoing head of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, has warned the United States and other Western powers against jumping to conclusions about Iran’s nuclear program. While Washington, Israel and their allies see increasing indications that Tehran’s secretive nuclear program is aimed at developing weapons, ElBaradei told an audience of academics, politicians and diplomats at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City that his agency has “no concrete evidence” that Tehran is pursuing an atom bomb.
By Patrick Worsnip
What’s more important — the right of a sovereign state to manage its affairs free of outside interference or the duty of the international community to intervene when massive human rights violations are being committed in a country?
The United Nations — nothing if not a talking shop — has been debating that question this week in the General Assembly. It goes to the heart of what the U.N. is all about.
At issue is a declaration issued four years ago by a summit of more than 150 world leaders asserting the “responsibility to protect” — R2P in U.N. jargon — populations threatened with genocide or other mass atrocities. It was a somewhat belated response to widespread criticism of the United Nations for failing to stop massacres in Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s.
The carefully crafted declaration said the responsibility began with the government of the country concerned. If that failed, it foresaw a sliding scale of international action, ranging from advice through mediation to — in a last resort — intervention by force. And such a use of force could only be authorized by the Security Council, meaning the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China would all have to agree.
Cautious as it was, the summit document was seen by many advocacy groups as a step on the road to fulfilling their dream that if a government was committing atrocities against its people, the United Nations would march in and stop it.
In the real world, U.N. officials say, that is not going to happen, at least under the peacekeeping rules that have applied in recent decades. These do not authorize U.N. forces to go to war against the national army of a sovereign state — a move that would amount to invasion. Witness the six-year-old conflict in Sudan’s western region of Darfur — branded by some as genocide — where a U.N./African Union peacekeeping force is only now being slowly deployed with the consent of the Khartoum government. The only time that R2P has been invoked in practice — and even then retrospectively — was in former U.N. secretary-General Kofi Annan’s mission to mediate in post-election violence in Kenya last year, U.N. officials say.
This week’s debate was to take stock of R2P and discuss how to take it forward, although no immediate action is expected. It came against the background of a determined attempt by radicals led by General Assembly President Miguel D’Escoto, a former Nicaraguan Sandinista government minister, to kick the issue into the long grass.
Small children dressed in dark blue pants and light blue shirts clutched U.N. and Sri Lankan flags as they sang a song in honor of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s arrival at the Manik Farm refugee camp. This is the temporary home to some 220,000 people who fled the final battle between Tamil Tiger rebels and government forces. The camp, Sri Lanka’s biggest, was plastered with posters of a smiling Ban and Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa that said, “Welcome Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to our motherland.”U.N. officials traveling with Ban had voiced concern that his visit could be exploited for propaganda purposes in a kind of victory dance for the Sri Lankan government. The secretary-general was the first major international figure to visit the island nation since the government won a 25-year-old war against the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) earlier this month. The officials said Ban would stay on message, demanding full and immediate access to some 290,000 refugees in camps in northern Sri Lanka and urging President Rajapaksa to reach out to the country’s Tamil minority to prevent a renewal of violence.During his visit to Manik Farm, Ban went to a small field hospital, where he saw severely emaciated elderly people attached to saline drips and children with shrapnel wounds. The picture could have been uglier. U.N. officials said the most severely injured – amputees, victims of mine explosions or heavy artillery blasts – were at other hospitals the delegation was not shown.A group of refugees at the Manik Farm camp, the country’s biggest displaced persons camp with over 210,000 residents, said they were outside the conflict zone in northern Sri Lanka but were rounded up by the government in April and brought to the camp. Asked in New York about the refugees’ unverified comments, U.N. humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes said he had no details about any such round-ups. However, he said it was possible that some people outside what was once called the “no-fire” zone were moved by the government into the camps. He noted that all of northeastern Sri Lanka was a war zone in a sense since it had previously been controlled by the Tamil Tigers.Ban and his delegation also flew over the former conflict zone in a tiny strip of coast in northeastern Sri Lanka where U.N. officials have accused the LTTE of using hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians as human shields as they struggled to fight off government forces. During the low-altitude helicopter flight, U.N. officials and reporters saw thousands of empty tents, piles of bicycles and other personal items abandoned in a hurry when the masses of starving civilians were fled for their lives. The burnt-out buses and cars, uprooted and smashed trees and craters filled with water appeared to provide evidence that heavy weapons were despite denials from the government and Tamil Tigers.At the end of the trip, Ban met for an hour with the president to press his demands. Afterwards Ban and Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogllagama spoke to reporters. Ban was asked if he saw evidence of “massive bombing” during the flight over the former battle zone. His answer was that “the fighting must have been severe.” Bogllagama was more direct when asked if he was confident Sri Lanka had committed no war crimes as human rights groups have said. His answer: “Absolutely.”Was Ban’s trip a success? One senior U.N. official told Reuters that Bogllagama repeatedly said “yes, yes, yes” in response to Ban’s demand for immediate and unimpeded access to the camps, though it was not clear when the access would come. A ban on the use of motor vehicles by U.N. or other aid agency personnel, however, remained in place for several more days as the government tried to prevent the escape of any Tigers hiding in the camps. (A few days after Ban left Sri Lanka, the government agreed to allow aid agencies to use cars and trucks at Manik Farm, though without flags and not in convoys.) Aid officials continue to complain that restrictions are crippling aid distribution in the camps.