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After 70 Years: The UN Falls Short, and Yet..

8 Oct

(Prefatory Note: A shorter somewhat modified version of this post was published in Al Jazeera Turka, but only in Turkish translation. The thesis set forth is that the UN has disappointed the expectations of those who took seriously its original promise of war prevention, but that it has over its lifetime done many things that need doing in the world. It also provided a meeting place for all governments, and has developed the best networking sites for all those concerned with the state of the world and what can be done by way of improvement. The UN System faces an important test in the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference to be held in Paris at the end of November. The event is billed as the make or break session for the governments of the world to agree finally to serve the human interest by establishing a strong enough framework of constraint governing the release of greenhouse gasses that will satisfy the scientific consensus that global warming will not eventuate in human disaster. If Paris is generally regarded as successful, the UN stock will rise steeply, but if it should fail, then its stature and role of the Organization could become even more marginalized. Either way, it is important to appreciate that the UN as of 2015 is a very different kind of political actor than when it was founded in 1945, disappointing to those who hoped for permanent peace and some justice, while pleasing to those who sought from the outset a wider global agenda for the Organization and felt that its best contributions would likely be in a wide range of practical concerns where the interests of major political actors more or less overlap.]

 

 

After 70 Years: The UN Falls Short, and Yet..

When the UN was established in the aftermath of the Second World War hopes were high that this new world organization would be a major force in world politics, and fulfill its Preamble pledge to prevent future wars. Seventy years later the UN disappoints many, and bores even more, appearing to be nothing more that a gathering place for the politically powerful. I think such a negative image has taken hold because the UN these days seems more than ever like a spectator than a political actor in the several crises that dominate the current agenda of global politics. This impression of paralysis and impotence has risen to new heights in recent years.

 

When we consider the waves of migrants fleeing war torn countries in the Middle East and Africa or four years of devastating civil war in Syria or 68 years of failure to find a solution for the Israel/Palestine conflict or the inability to shape a treaty to rid the world of nuclear weapons, and on and on, it becomes clear that the UN is not living up to the expectations created by its own Charter and the fervent hopes of people around the world yearning for peace and justice.

 

The UN itself seems unreformable, unable to adapt its structures and operations to changes in the global setting. The Security Council’s five permanent members are still the five winners in World War II, taking no account of the rise of India, Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria or even the European Union. Despite globalization and the transnational rise of civil society, states and only states are eligible for UN membership and meaningful participation in the multifold operations of the Organization.

 

How can we explain this disappointment? We must at the outset acknowledge that the high hopes attached to the UN early on were never realistic. After all, the Charter itself acknowledged the geopolitical major premise, which is the radical inequality of sovereign states when it comes to power and wealth. Five permanent seats in the Security Council were set aside for these actors that seemed dominant in 1945. More importantly, they were given an unrestricted right to veto any decision that went against their interests or values, or those of its allies and friends. In effect, the constitution of the Organization endowed the potentially most dangerous states in the world, at least as measured by war making capabilities, with the option of being exempt from UN authority and international law.

 

Such an architectural feature of the UN was not a quixotic oversight of the founders. It was a deliberate step taken to overcome what perceived to be a weakness of the League of Nations established after World War I, which did look upon the equality of sovereign states as the unchallengeable constitutional foundation of an organization dedicated to preserving international peace. The experience of the League was interpreted as discouraging the most powerful states from meaningful participation (and in the case of the United States, from any participation at all) precisely because their geopolitical role was not taken into account.

 

In practice over the life of the UN, the veto has had a crippling political effect as it has meant that the UN cannot make any strong response unless the permanent five (P5) agree, which as we have learned during the Cold War and even since, is not very often. There is little doubt that without the veto possessed by Russia the UN would have been far more assertive in relation to the Syrian catastrophe, and not found itself confined to offering its good offices to a regime in Damascus that never seemed sincere about ending the violence or finding a political solution except on its own harsh terms of all out defeat of its adversaries.

 

Of course, the General Assembly, which brings all 194 member states together, supposedly has the authority to make recommendations, and act when the Security Council is blocked. It has not worked out that way. After the General Assembly flexed its muscles in the early 1970s emboldened by the outcome of the main colonial wars geopolitics took over. The GA became a venue controlled by the non-aligned movement, and in 1974 when it found backing for the Declaration of a New International Economic Order the writing was on the wall. The larger capitalist states fought back, and were able to pull enough strings to ensure that almost all authority to take action became concentrated in the Security Council. The Soviet Union went along, worried about political majorities against its interests, and comfortable with the availability of the veto as needed. The General Assembly has been since mainly relegated to serving the world as a talk shop, and is hardly noticed when it comes to crisis management or lawmaking. Despite this development the GA is still relevant to the formation of world public opinion. Its Autumn session provides the leaders of the world with the most influential lectern at which to express their worldview and recommendations for the future. Even Pope Francis took advantage of such an influential platform on which to articulate his concerns, hopes, and prescriptions.

 

There is an additional fundamental explanation of why the UN cannot do more in response to the global crises that are bringing such widespread human suffering to many peoples in the world. The UN was constructed on the basis of mutual and legally unconditional respect for the territorial sovereignty of its members. The Charter itself in Article 2(7) prohibits the UN from intervening in matters that are essentially internal to a state, such as strife, insurgency, abridgement of human rights, and even civil war. Such an insulation of domestic strife runs counter to the practice of intervention by geopolitical actors, and in this respect gives the UN framework a legalistic character that is not descriptive of the manner in which world politics operates.  

 

True, when the political winds blow strongly in certain threatening directions as was the case in relation to Serbian behavior in Kosovo that seemed to be on the verge of repeating the Srebrenica massacre of 1995, NATO effectively intervened but without the blessings of the UN, and hence in violation of international law. Then again in Libya the Security Council actually gave its approval for a limited intervention in the form of a no-fly-zone to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe befalling the besieged inhabitants of Benghazi. In that setting, the SC relying on the new norm of ‘responsibility-to-protect’ or R2P to justify its use of force. When NATO immediately converted this limited UN mandate into a regime-changing intervention that led to the execution of Qaddafi and the replacement of the Libyan government it was clear that the R2P argument acted as little more than a pretext to pursue a more ambitious, yet legally dubious and politically unacceptable, Western agenda in the country. R2P diplomacy has been further discredited by the failure to offer UN protection in the extreme circumstances of Palestine, Syria, and now Yemen.

 

Not surprisingly, Russia and China that had been persuaded by Western powers in 2011 to go along with the establishment of a no-fly-zone to protect Benghazi felt deceived and manipulated. These governments lost their trust in the capacity of the Security Council to set limits that would be respected once a decision was reached. This is part of the story of why the UN has been gridlocked when it came to Syria, and why R2P has been kept on the diplomatic shelf. The Security Council to be able to overcome the veto depends upon trust among the P5 sufficient to achieve a consensus, which was badly betrayed by what NATO did in Libya. Human rights advocates have long put forward the idea that the P5 agree informally or by formal resolution to forego the use of the veto in devising responses to mass atrocities, but so far, there has been little resonance. Similarly, sensible proposals to establish an UN Peace Force that could respond quickly to natural and humanitarian catastrophes on the originating initiative of the UN Secretary General have also not found much political resonance over the years. It would seem that the P5 are unwilling to relax their grip on the geopolitical reins on UN authority established in the very different world situation that existed in 1945.

 

Kosovo showed that, at times, humanitarian pressures (when reinforcing dominant geopolitical interests) induce states to act outside the UN framework, while Libya illustrates the long term weakening of UN capacity and legitimacy by manipulating the debate to gain support of skeptical states for intervention in an immediate war/peace and human rights situation. The hypocrisy of the R2P diplomacy by the failure to make a protective response of any kind to the acute vulnerability of such abused minorities as the Uighurs in Xinjiang Province of China, the Rohingya in Rankhine State of Myanmar, and of course the Palestinians of Palestine. There are, of course, many other victimized groups whose rights are trampled upon by the state apparatus of control that for UN purposes is treated as their sole and unreviewable legal protector.

 

In the end, what this pattern adds up to is a clear demonstration of the persisting primacy of geopolitics within the UN. When the P5 agree, the UN can generally do whatever the consensus mandates, although it technically requires additional support from non-permanent members of the SC. If there is no agreement, then the UN is paralyzed when it comes to action, and geopolitical actors have a political option of acting unlawfully, that is, without obtaining prior authority from the Security Council and in contravention of international law. This happened in 2003 when the U.S. Government failed to gain support from the SC for its proposed military attack upon Iraq, and went ahead anyway, with disastrous results for itself, and even more so for the Iraqi people.

 

It is helpful to appreciate that disappointment with the role of the UN is usually less the fault of the Organization than of the behavior of the geopolitical heavyweights. If we want a stronger UN then it will be necessary to constrain geopolitics, and make all states, including the P5 subject to the restraints of international law and sensitive to moral imperatives.

 

Another kind of UN reform that should have been achieved decades ago is to make the P5 into the P8 or P9 by enlarging permanent membership to include a member from Asia (additional to China), Africa, and Latin America. This would give the Security Council and the UN more legitimacy in a post-colonial world where shifts in the global balance are still suppressed.

 

Along with the above explanation of public disappointment, there are also many reasons to be grateful for the existence of the UN and to be thankful that despite the many conflicts in the world during its lifetime every state in the world has wanted to become a member, and none have exhibited their displeasure with UN policies to leave the Organization. Given the intensity of conflict in the world, sustaining this universality is itself a remarkable achievement. It perhaps expresses the unanticipated significance of the UN as the most influential and versatile hub for global communications.

 

There are other major UN contributions to human wellbeing. The UN has been principally responsible for the rise of human rights and environmental protection, and has done much to improve global health, preserve cultural heritage, protect children, and inform us about the hazards of ignoring climate change.

 

We could live better with a stronger UN, but we would be far worse off if the UN didn’t exist or collapsed. The only constructive approach is to do our best in the years ahead to make the UN more effective, less victimized by geopolitical maneuvering, and more attuned to achieving humane global governance.

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Voting for Hilary Clinton? Red Lines versus Lesser of Evils

14 Jul

 

 

Assuming that the current prospects for presidential candidates hold firm, and Hilary Clinton is nominated by the Democrats and Jeb Bush, Rick Rubio, or Scott Walker win the Republican nomination, what should a conscientious citizen do when it comes to voting in November 2016? Of course, step one is to rule out support for the Republican candidates due to their regressive views on a range of social and economic issues, and their militarist bluster on foreign and defense policy. Step two is more difficult. Clinton is clearly preferable if the domestic agenda is taken into account, and probably no worse than the Republicans when it comes to foreign policy, but also not noticeably better, and in some ways more objectionable.

 

For instance, she begins her recent letter to the billionaire arch Zionist mega-donor and longtime Clinton family supporter, Haim Saban, on July 7, 2015 this way: “I am writing to express my alarm over the boycott, divestment, and sanction movement, ‘BDS,’ a global effort to isolate the State of Israel by ending commercial and academic exchanges.” She seeks Saban’s guidance in pursuit of this nefarious goal with this deferential language: “Now I am seeking your thoughts and recommendations on how leaders and communities across America can work together to counter BDS.”

 

I am sure it didn’t escape the gurus of the Clinton campaign that Saban had joined with the casino mogul, Sheldon Adelson not long ago to headline a donors gathering at which each participant was expected to pledge $1 million to fight BDS. Although Adelson identifies as Republican and Saban as Democrat, both fervently embrace the Netanyahu brand of Israeli leadership. Saban has been quoted on Iran in language that manages to outdo Bibi, “I would bomb the daylight out of those sons of bitches.”

 

Clinton has a variety of other scary credentials, including voting in support of the Iraq War of 2003, and to this day remains unwilling to admit that the war was at the very least a tragic mistake, and more accurately, a costly international crime. She not only argued for intervention in Libya in 2011, but made a chilling comment on CBS News after learning of the grisly vigilante execution of Muammar Qaddafi: “We came, we saw, he died.” Further, among the emails that Clinton has long withheld from the public are several that substantiate the charges that France from the outset both intended to overthrow the Qaddafi regime, and expected to reap economic benefits by way of the spoils of war, especially with respect to Libya’s oil wealth. It is not that Clinton actually conspired with such plans while serving as Secretary of State, but she did knowingly lead the effort to support the French-led NATO intervention in 2011, claiming that its limited goal was the protection of Libyan civilians in Benghazi, when she was well aware that the real purpose of the UN-mandated intervention was regime-change in Tripoli.

 

Here is my dilemma. In view of such considerations, does one vote for Hilary Clinton with eyes wide open because she is likely to be better for ordinary Americans on a range of crucial issues, including some effort to challenge the obscene scandal of growing inequalities and sustained slippage in the real income and labor rights of workers and the accumulated hardships on much of the middle class? Or does one say there are certain candidates whose views are so abhorrent as to be unsupportable without weighing their suitability against alternatives? Many remember the acrimonious debates along the same lines concerning the 2000 campaign pitting Bush against Gore, and allegedly lost by Gore in Florida because Ralph Nader, running as a third party candidate, received over 90,000 votes, arguably more than enough to swing the state to Gore’s side of the ledger, and thus enough electoral votes to win the presidency. Most Democrats angrily dismissed Nader as a spoiler and harshly criticized supporters for indulging in irresponsible political behavior. As someone who voted for Nader in 2000, while coming to detest the Bush presidency, I continue to believe that primary duty of citizens in a democratic society is to be on most occasions responsive to their conscience rather than to attempt pragmatic calculations often glamorized as ‘the best being the enemy of the good.’ In the case more accurately phrases as ‘the worst being the enemy of the bad.’ I do admit that I didn’t realize in 2000 that Bush would turn out as badly as he did, and if I had, I might have wavered.

 

Looking ahead to 2016 the issue of choice can be at this stage put as follows: vote for Hilary Clinton as ‘the lesser of evils’ or vote for Jill Stein of the Green Party as the most attractive presidential candidate, but someone with no chance to do more than enliven the debate and give alienated voters like myself a positive option that feels better than not voting. Remember that there were those establishment liberals who in the tense days after the 9/11 attacks were ready to rationalize torture as the lesser of evils. It was alleged lesser as compared to the need for information that would lead to dangerous terrorist suspects, but where it actually led was to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and a nationally humiliating orgy of torture with very little security payoff. The Kathryn Bigelow film on the search for and execution of Osama Bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty,” also gave a bright green light to the torture policies of the Bush presidency, fed to the public by the grotesque evasion embedded in the words ‘enhanced interrogation.’

 

The alternative logic may be described as respect for ‘red lines.’ I happen to believe that the BDS campaign is a desirable and an essential step in the redesign of a peace process that might produce a just and sustainable peace for Palestinians and Israelis

after more than 67 years of agonizing failure, including the recent frustrations associated with the Oslo diplomacy initiated by the handshake in 1993 between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat, with a beaming Bill Clinton standing in between. For me, Hilary Clinton crossed my red line with her craven letter to Haim Saban, making it impossible for me to vote for her by invoking the alternative logic of the lesser of evil. But maybe, although unlikely, by the time November 2016 comes around, I might reconsider.

 

I realize that if one of those awful Republicans is elected president by a close vote that is skewed by Green Party votes, I will be bitterly criticized by liberal friends. I admit that it is a tricky issue on principled grounds. Livelihoods and wellbeing will almost certainly be adversely affected by a Republican victory, whereas the differences in foreign policy between the two candidates are murky at best, and on Israel/Palestine there is no up side regardless of which party prevails. At the same time, the American plutocracy has become a bipartisan enterprise, calling for resistance as an ethical and political imperative, acknowledging the validity of Chris Hedges’ powerfully reasoned insistence that the country is experiencing pre-revolutionary tremors.

 

At this stage of the electoral process, my overall sense is that the lesser of evils is still evil, and that morally significant red lines are important for citizens to draw and respect. Until further notice, then, I have decided not to cast my vote for Hilary Clinton.  

Post-Intervention Libya: A Militia State

12 Oct

 

            Two apparently related and revealing incidents have turned public attention briefly back to Libya just after the second anniversary of the NATO intervention that helped anti-Qaddafi rebel forces overthrow his regime. The first incident involved the infringement of Libyan sovereignty by an American special forces operation that seized the alleged al Qaeda operative, Abu Anas al-Libi (also known as Nizah Abdul Hamed al-Ruqai), on October 5, supposedly with the knowledge and consent of the Libyan government. The second incident, evidently a response to the first seizure, was the kidnapping a few days later of the country’s prime minister, Ali Zeidan, while he lay asleep in his hotel lodgings in the center of Tripoli. He was easily captured by a squadron of 20 militia gunmen who arrived at the hotel around 6:00 am and proceeded without resistance from security guards to carry off the head of the Libyan state. Such a bold assault on the state’s essential character as the sole purveyor of legitimate violence (according to the famous conception of Max Weber) is a telltale sign of a political system of shadow governance, that is, without security.

 

            The capture of Ali Zeidan was reportedly prompted both by anger at the government’s impotence in the face of such an overt violation of Libyan sovereignty by the United States, as well as serving to warn the political leadership of the country that any further effort to disarm militias would be resisted. Ali Zeidan seizure was largely symbolic. He was held by his captors for only a few hours before being released. Nevertheless, the ease of the kidnapping sent shivers down the spine of the Western countries that had been so proud two years ago of their regime-changing intervention under NATO auspices. The incident also reinforced the impression in the West that prospects for lucrative foreign investment and substantial oil flows would have to be put on hold for the indefinite future.

 

            According to journalistic accounts, which should perhaps be discounted as unreliable rumors, the militia responsible for this daring challenge to governmental authority in Libya, seems to have recently formed, and is headed by Nuri Abusahmen, who is the speaker of the General National Assembly. RMr. Abusahmen sat serenely besides the prime minister as he addressed the nation shortly after regaining his freedom, but there are reasons to doubt the veracity of this account.  For those conscious of Libyan realities, if such a juxtaposition were accurate it would be a further indication that the capabilities of the elected government in Tripoli are modest as compared to that of the militias, and can be overridden at will by recalcitrant civil society forces. Perhaps, more to the point, there appears to be a seamless web in Libya between the government and the militias, between what is de jure and what is de facto, and between what is lawful and what is criminal. Of course, it was also highly disturbing that a prominent al Qaeda operative was roaming freely in Libya, and seemingly enjoying some level of national support.

 

            There is no doubt that Libya is so pervasively armed that even the National Rifle Association might find excessive. Supposedly, every household is in possession of weapons either distributed to Libyans supportive of the Qaddafi government during its struggle to survive or acquired from NATO benefactors. Unlike several of the other countries experiencing a troubled aftermath to the Arab Upheavals, Libya is a rich economic prize, with the world’s fifth largest oil reserves generating a cash flow that could be a boon to the troubled economies of Europe that carried out the intervention, and have acted subsequently as if they have an entitlement to a fair market share of the economic opportunities for trade and investment.

 

            Two years ago the concerns that prompted NATO to act were overtly associated with Qaddafi’s bloody crimes against his own people. The use of force was authorized in a circumscribed March 17, 2011 Security Council Resolution 1973 premised on protecting the entrapped civilian population of Benghazi against imminent attacks by the regime primarily through the establishment of a no-fly zone. The non-Western members of the UNSC were skeptical and suspicious at the time of the debate about authorizing military action fearing that more would be done than claimed, but agreed to abstain when it came to a vote, relying with reluctance on reassurances from pro-interventionist members of the Security Council that the undertaking was of a purely ‘humanitarian’ rather than what it became, a political initiative with a ‘regime-changing’ character.

 

            As it turned out, almost from day one of the intervention it became clear that NATO was interpreting the UN mandate in the broadest possible way, engaging in military operations obviously intended to cause the collapse of the Qaddafi government in Tripoli, and only incidentally focused on protecting the people of Benghazi from immediate danger. This maneuver was understandably interpreted as a betrayal of trust by those Security Council members who had been persuaded to abstain, especially Russia and China. One effect of such an action was to weaken, at least in the short run, the capacity of the UN to form a consensus in responses to humanitarian crises, as in Syria, and may also have undermined prospects for stable governance in Libya for many years to come.

 

            The Libyan future remains highly uncertain at present with several scenarios plausible: partition based on fundamental ethnic and regional enmities, essentially creating two polities, one centered in Benghazi, the other in Tripoli; a perpetuation of tribal rivalries taking the form of cantonization of the country with governing authority appropriated by various militia, and likely producing a type of low-intensity warfare that creates chaos and precludes both meaningful democracy and successful programs of economic development; ‘a failed state’ that becomes a sanctuary for transnational extremist violence, and then becomes a counter-terrorist battlefield in the manner of Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, the scene of deadly drone attacks and covert operations by special forces. There is even talk of the return to power of Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, who might indeed provide the only road back to political stability. The seizure of al-Libi and the subsequent kidnapping of the prime minister may be metaphors of what ‘governance’ in Libya has come to signify.

 

            The European media and political leaders worry aloud once more about these disturbing scenarios, but rarely hearken back to reassess the imperial moves of 2011 that were at least partly designed to restore European influence and create economic opportunities. It is one more instance of post-colonial unwillingness to respect the sovereign autonomy of states, or at least to limit their interference to operational undertakings in genuine emergency actions strictly within the scope of a UN mandate and truly restricted to the prevention and mitigation of humanitarian catastrophes. The dynamics of self-determination may produce ugly strife and terrible human tragedy, but nothing can be much worse than what Western intervention produces. The logic of state-centric world order needs to be complemented by regional and world community institutions and procedures that can address the internal failures of sovereign states and the machinations of global private sector manipulations of domestic tensions that has contributed so insidiously to massive bloodshed to sub-Saharan Africa. [See Noam Chomsky & Andre Vltchek, On Western Terrorism from Hiroshima to Drone Warfare (2013) for convincing elaboration of this latter contention]

 

            There are obviously no easy answers, but there is no shortage of  obscurantist commentary. For instance, there is an image of a ‘failed state’ as one that poses a threat to Western interests or fails to govern in a manner that precludes its territory from being used to mount hostile violence directed at the West or its property. But is not Egypt as much, or more, of a failed state than Libya, and yet it not so regarded? A strong and oppressive state, especially if not anti-Western, is seen as compatible with geostrategic interests even if it commits terrible crimes against humanity against its domestic opponents as has been the case with the al-Sisi led coup in Egypt.

 

            We can only wonder whether Libya as of 2013 is not better understood as a ‘militia state’ rather than a ‘failed state,’ which seems like an emerging pattern for societies that endure Western military intervention. The parallels of Libya with Iraq and Afghanistan are uncomfortably suggestive.