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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.

The Yemen Catastrophe: Beset by Contradictions of Will and Intellect

28 Sep

[Prefatory Note: This post modifies an article published in Middle East Eye on September 21, 2015, with title, “Yemen pays the price for Saudis’ sectarian paranoia.” Whether the Saudis are being paranoid about political developments in their neighbors (Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen) or prudent in view of regional threats to the stability of the Kingdom is difficult to ascertain. However this issue is resolved, portraying what has gone wrong as a consequence of sectarianism or an expansionist Iran, evades the real challenges being posed in Yemen, in Syria, and elsewhere in the region. Only in Iraq, where American occupation policy injected

a self-defeating sectarianism as the centerpiece of its post-Saddam Hussein state-building project, does this optic misused when applied to Middle East conflict seem to explain the course of developments, including the alignment of Iraq’s current leaders with Iran rather than with their supposed liberators from the West!]




Yemen Catastrophe: Beset by Contradictions of Will and Intellect


Any attempt to provide a coherent account of the political strife afflicting Yemen is bound to fail. The country is crucible of contradictions that defy normal categories of rational analysis. If we look beyond the political fog that envelops the conflict the tragic circumstances of acute suffering imposed on the civilian population do emerge with stark clarity. Long before the outbreak of civil warfare, Yemen was known to be the poorest country in the region, faced with looming food and water scarcities. The UN estimates 80% of the population is in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, 40% live on less than $2 per day. Further there are high risks of mass famine and epidemic outbreaks of disease will occur, while continuing chaos is a near certainty, with the prospect of yet another wave of desperate migrants swept ashore in Europe.


Against this background, the UN Security Council seems shockingly supportive of a major Saudi military intervention via sustained air attacks that started in March 2015, severely aggravating the overall situation by unanimously adopting a one-sided anti-Houthi Resolution 2216. This Saudi use of force is contrary to international law, violates the core principle of the UN Charter, and magnifies the violent disruption of Yemeni society. The success of the Houthi insurgency from the north that swept the Yemeni leadership from power, taking over the capital city of Sanaa, was perversely treated by the Security Council as a military coup somehow justifying the intervention by a Saudi led coalition of Gulf countries pledged to restore the ‘legitimate’ government to power. To grasp the geopolitics at play it is clarifying to recall that the 2013 blatant military coup in Egypt, with much bloodier reprisals against the displaced elected rulers, aroused not a murmur of protest in the halls of the UN. Once more the primacy of geopolitics is showcased in the Middle East. It’s not what you do, but who does it, that matters when it comes to a UN response.


What makes it even more difficult to make sense of developments in Yemen is the geopolitical tendency, as abetted by the media, to reduce incredibly complex national histories and the interplay of multiple contending forces to a simplistic story of Sunni versus Shia rivalry for the control of the country. Such a prism of interpretation, above all, allows Saudi Arabia to portray once again the strife in Yemen as another theater of the wider region proxy war pitting Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies against Iran, which is a guaranteed way of securing U.S. and Israeli backing. The same rationale has served the Kingdom well (and the world badly) in explaining why it supports anti-Assad forces in Syria during the last several years. It also was the pretext for intervening in Bahrain in 2011 to crush a popular pro-democracy uprising. If considered more objectively we begin to understand that this sectarian optic obscures more than it reveals, and not accidentally.


For instance, when it came to Egypt, however, the sectarian template was completely discarded, and the Saudis immediately used their financial muscle to help the anti-Muslim Brotherhood coup in 2012 led by General Sisi to consolidate its control over the country. Even when Israel attacked Gaza a year ago, seeking to destroy Hamas, a Sunni Islamic version of the Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia made no secret of the startling fact that it gave Tel Aviv a green light. What emerges, then, is not a regional politics based on sectarian priorities, but rather a pathological preoccupation with regime stability in the Saudi monarchy, with anxieties arising whenever political tendencies emerge in the region that elude its control, and are perceived as threatening. Part of the truer explanation of Saudi pattern of behavior also has to do with the Faustian Bargain struck with the powerful Wahabi establishment, which has allowed the Saud royal clan to flourish at home while spending billions to spread the most repressive version of Islam far and wide to madrassas throughout Asia. The fact that the application of Wahabism at home, including more than 100 beheadings already this year and confinement of women to an extent that makes the Islamic Republic of Iran appear liberal by comparison, is a further sign that international clamor of human rights is selective to put it mildly.


The people of Yemen are paying a huge price for this brand of Saudi violent security politics. Whether it is paranoia at work or a healthy respect for the mass unpopularity of its policies, or some mixture, is difficult to assess. Yet what seems clear is that much of the world is lulled to sleep, not taking the trouble to peer below this sectarian cover story. Only scant account taken of the fact that the real threats to regional order in Yemen do not come from a reasonable Houthi insistence on power-sharing political arrangements, but mainly arise from the presence in Yemen of Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS that have been long targeted by American drones as part of the war of the terror ever since 2007. So while the West supports the Saudi fight against the Shia Houthis at the same time it does its best to weaken their most formidable domestic opposition, and in the process further alienates the Yemeni civilian population by its military tactics, which recruits more extremists committed to fighting against this second form of external intervention that finds no basis in international law and enjoys the tacit support of the UN Security Council.


If this was not enough to make the Yemeni crystal ball opaque, there is the internal alignment of forces. On the one side, the 2012 successor regime to the corrupt dictatorial rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh that is headed by its equally corrupt former vice president, Abd Rabbaah Mansour Hadi, now apparently ‘governing’ from exile, although rumored to be seeking a return to Aden. On the anti-regime side, in addition to the Houthis, are the main military and police forces that still respond to the authority of the ousted leader, Saleh, who has returned to the Yemen struggle to oppose the Saudi intervention and have helped turn the tide of battle on the ground against the Hadi-led government. Despite this adverse battlefield reality, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Adel al-Jubeir, was quoted as saying “We will do whatever it takes to protect the legitimate government of Yemen from falling.” Tragically, what this seems to mean, is reducing the country to a shambles that brings starvation and disease to the population, and possibly escalating at some future point of frustration by the launch of a ground offensive. There are confirmed reports of a massing of Saudi troops close to the Yemen border.


At this point, it is difficult to know what would bring some kind of peace and stability to Yemen. What we do know is that both the sectarian optic, Saudi intervention, and American drone warfare are dead end options. The beginning of a constructive approach is to take root causes of the current conflict into account. Several need to be considered. There is a long experience of division in the country between the north and the south, and this means that any unity government for the whole of Yemen can only be sustained by an iron-fisted dictator like Saleh or through a genuine power-sharing federalist kind of arrangement based on decentralized autonomy and a weak central governmental structure. Beyond this, the country bears the scars of Ottoman rule intermixed with a British presence in Aden and the surrounding area, vital to earlier colonial priorities of controlling the Suez and the trade routes to the East.


Additionally, and often forgotten and ignored, Yemen remains a composite of tribes that still command the major loyalty of people and reign supreme in many locales. The modern European insistence on sovereign states in the Middle East never succeeded in overcoming the primacy of Yemeni tribal identities. Any possibility of political stability requires subsidizing and respecting Yemen’s tribes as Saudi Arabia did during Saleh’s dictatorship (1990-2012) or creating a multi-colored quilt of autonomous tribal polities. When the background of the north/south split and persisting tribalism are taken into account recourse to the Shia/Sunni divide or the Riyadh/Tehran rivalry as an explanation of Yemen’s strife-ridden country is more than a simplistic evasion of a far more complicated reality. It is a cruel and futile fantasy.


What should be done, given this overall situation? One potential key to achieving some kind of peace in Yemen is held by policymakers in Washington. So long as the U.S. Government remains beholden to the rulers in Saudi monarchy, to the extremists running Israel, and insistent on striking at AQAP targets with drone missiles, this key is unusable. This combination of factors is what makes the wider political turmoil in the Middle East stuck on a lethal fast moving treadmill. How to get off the treadmill, that is the question for which there answers, but as yet no relevant political will.


There are two obvious moves, neither ideal, but with the modest goal of a first step in creating a new political order: first, negotiate a ceasefire that includes an end to the Saudi intervention; secondly, establish a more credible revival of the National Dialogue Conference that two years ago made a failed attempt at Gulf initiative in Sanaa to find a power-sharing arrangement. It did not help matters then that two successive Houthi representatives at the diplomatic discussions were assassinated on their way to participate. What is needed is establishing a political transition sensitive both to the north/south split and the strength of Yemeni tribes coupled with massive economic assistance from outside, as well as the establishment of a UN peacekeeping presence tasked with implementation and the termination of all forms of external armed intervention. Nothing less has any chance of working.


Such a rational path is currently blocked, especially by the intense militancy of the aggressive Saudi leadership of King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, and his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Secretary of Defense, the apparent champion of military intervention. The United States, with its special relationship to Israel, its strong ties to Saudi Arabia, and faith in drone led counterterrorism seems to be swallowing the central contradiction between opposing both its real adversaries, AQAP and ISIS, and its implicit ally, the Houthis. Instead of treating the enemy of their enemy as a friend, Washington has reversed the proverb. This Gordian Knot is strangling the people of Yemen. Cutting it will require a drastic break with current policy. The way forward is evident, but how to get there is not, in the meantime the bodies pile up in what has long been considered the poorest country in the region severely stressed by the prospect of severe water scarcities.


The Geopolitical Right of Exception at the United Nations

13 Apr


The notorious, yet influential, German jurist, Carl Schmitt famously insisted that ‘a right of exception’ was the core reality of national sovereignty. By this he meant that internal law could be put aside by ‘the sovereign,’ inhering as the crux of the relationship between state and society. In this regard international law has no overriding claim of authority with respect to sovereign states, at least from the perspective of statist jurisprudence. This discretion to ignore or violate law is distinct from submission to law as a realistic adaptation by weak states to political realities or compliance undertaken voluntarily for pragmatic reasons of convenience and mutual benefit.


When the UN was established, it was configured, to appeal both to realist minds who were eager to show that they had learned the lesson of Munich and to those architects of international cooperation that did not want the folly of the League of Nations, seen as a politically irrelevant sanctuary for utopians and dreamers to be repeated in this newly created organization. To achieve these ends the UN Charter vested only the UN Security Council with the power of decision (as distinct from recommendations), and limited its membership originally to nine states of which the five designated winners of World War II were given both permanent membership, and more importantly, a right of veto. In effect, the right of veto was a constitutional right of exception embedded in the UN Charter. It formulated the master procedural rule of the Charter as one that allowed permanent members of the Security Council to block any decision that was perceived to be sufficiently against their national interests or those of its friends. Just as Woodrow Wilson falsely misled the world with his pledge after World War I of ‘making the world safe for democracy’ the UN was more effectively manipulated into the actuality of ‘making the world safe for geopolitics.’


In effect, the UN was set up on the basis that it would never be strong enough to challenge these five major states, and that its effectiveness would rest on two possibilities: sustaining the voluntary cooperation that had worked successfully during World War II to thwart European fascism and Japanese imperialism or cooperating on issues of secondary concern in the peace and security area on which the permanent members could agree and persuade enough non-permanent term members to lend support. As was discovered several decades ago, these permanent members could only agree on what to do in the Security Council on the rarest of occasions, and that decisions relating to secondary issues, although often useful, left the really dangerous conflicts beyond the reach of the UN. The UN also committed itself to respect territorial sovereignty of its members, and by virtue of Article 2(7) of the Charter, placed all forms of civil strife beyond its writ unless the Security Council agreed that there were present substantial threats to international peace and security.


This constitutional right of exception to some extent contradicts the basic imperative of the Organization “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” that is set forth in the Preamble to the Charter. To the extent that major wars have been avoided during the lifetime of the UN it is not due to the efforts of the Organization. It is rather a consequence of deterrence, and geopolitical self-restraint and prudence, which were greatly encouraged by the awareness that any war fought with nuclear weapons would be a catastrophe regardless of which side prevailed. Major wars were prevented by a reliance on traditional notions of balance, containment, and countervailing power fine tuned for the realities of the nuclear age. These were realist instruments of statecraft associated with the European state system as adapted to the distinctive contemporary challenges. In the over 400 pages of his 2014 book, World Order, Henry Kissinger, the realist par excellence of this era, hardly mentions the UN, and accords it no significant role in shaping or even misshaping the ‘world order’ in the 21st century. The UN is simply seen as a diplomatic sideshow. He sees the present world order need to be primarily concerned with incorporating the non-Western major states, especially China, in an enlarged conception of a state system that is based on European ideas. For this process of incorporation to occur smoothly it will be essential that Westphalian logic of statism be newly perceived as reflecting the values and worldview of these diverse civilizations, and no longer be understood as an integral aspect of the Western world domination project.


Although the UN is a disappointment when it comes to ‘war prevention’ or the encouragement of a global rule of law, it has managed to achieve universality of membership. Unlike the League that failed to induce the United States to join and lost along the way several important members, the UN has neither expelled countries from its ranks nor have states withdrawn. The Organization has proved sufficiently useful as a site of diplomatic interaction and contestation that every government regardless of ideology or outlook finds it useful to participate in its activities. Even Israel that consistently complains loudly about the flawed and biased character of the UN, still tries with all its diplomatic ingenuity to influence its various activities in directions consistent with its foreign policy.


What has received too little attention so far is what I would call ‘the geopolitical right of exception’ that is quite distinct from the constitutional veto, but at least as pernicious from the perspective of enabling the UN to promote the human interest in its actions throughout the world. The geopolitical right of exception reflects the ability of one or more political actor in the world to promote or undermine policies that express its particular interest. In UN contexts the geopolitical right of exception allows a state to prevent the implementation of behavior that has been otherwise given formal approval. For instance, in the UN Human Rights Council there is no operative constitutional right of exception, and this allows certain steps to

be taken on the basis of majority approval. Yet when it comes to implementation or enforcement, acting behind the scenes, threatening funding cuts and actions for and against a high official, the political will of the Organization is effectively resisted and controlled. For instance, Israel despite ignoring strongly backed UN General Assembly resolutions dealing with such matters as refugees, Jerusalem, the separation wall, has been able to be defiant over the course of decades without experiencing any inter-governmental adverse consequences, and this is because it is protected by the United States exercise of its geopolitical right of exception on its behalf. The availability of such a geopolitical right is in direct proportion to the perceived hierarchy of hard and soft power in the world, which has meant that since World War II, the United States far more than any other political actor has enjoyed a geopolitical right of exception within the UN.


The existence of this geopolitical right of exception undermines the legitimacy and effectiveness of the UN. It is integral to regimes of double standards, and cuts directly against the grain of global justice that seeks to treat equals as equally as possible. It also implicitly endorses backroom strong arm tactics and procedural manipulation, as well as modifies and distorts the rights and duties of membership in the UN.


Overcoming the geopolitical right of exception would require its repudiation by the United States, in particular, through a recognition that its exercise is incompatible with the search for a peaceful, just, sustainable, and more participatory form of world order. Because it is often exercised invisibly, this geopolitical right is also a vehicle of influence relied upon by private sector corporate and financial interests that are contrary to the global public interest. At present, it seems hopelessly out of touch to expect any moves by the American and other powerful governments to forego the benefits of the geopolitical right of veto. Because its exercise is neither claimed nor acknowledged, there can be no accountability, thus operating in a manner that is contrary to the democratic spirit. The constitutional veto has the benefit of discourse and debate as various political actors try to offer convincing reasons for casting a veto to block a Security Council decision. For this very reason the geopolitical right of exception is often a more desirable option than the constitutional right if the policy or position being promoted is unpopular with public opinion and other governments. The U.S. Government struggles often behind the scenes at the UN to provide effective support for Israel in ways that get the job done without having to achieve such an unpopular result by a seemingly arbitrary reliance on its veto.


Unless a full-fledged world government were to be established, which seems slightly less likely than awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Vladamir Putin, there is no prospect of any renunciation of the geopolitical right of exception at the UN in the foreseeable future. The best that can be hoped for is a recognition of its existence and role, some sort of greater self-restraint exhibited in its exercise, and critical commentary by those who conceive of their political identity as that of ‘citizen pilgrims.’

Doing Business with Israel: Increasingly Problematic

20 Jun

[Note: Published below is a letter prepared by the European Coordination of Committee and Associations for Palestine (ECCP) and endorsed by John Dugard, Michael Mansfield, Eric David, and myself; it urges adherence to guidelines relating to corporate and financial activity with unlawful economic activities in Israel and occupied Palestine, and is guided by principles similar to the BDS campaign; it is notable that on June 20th the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church by a close vote (310-303) voted to divest itself of $21 million dollars worth of shares in three corporations (Motorola Solutions, Hewlett-Packard, Caterpillar) engaged in legally and morally objectionable activities supportive of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. There is a growing momentum associated with this new nonviolent militancy associated with the global solidarity movement supportive of the Palestinian struggle to gain a just peace, including realization of rights under international law. This nonviolent turn is being directly challenged by the rise of ISIS in the region that relies on unrestrained violence and promises the liberation of Palestine.]

European Coordination of Committees and Associations for Palestine (ECCP)

On 24-26 June, 37 European companies from 11 EU Member States will travel to Israel as a part of an EU led “Mission for growth” project that aims to “promote partnerships between Israeli and European companies 
active in sectors identified as leading and developing industries in Israel.” Among Israeli companies participating in the “Mission for growth” are those deeply complicit in Israel’s occupation and apartheid policy. The previous delegation of “Mission for growth” took place on 22-23 October last year in Israel, where 97 european companies from 23 EU Member States meet with 215 Israeli companies from the different industrial sectors. In this open letter supported by Richard FalkJohn DugardMichael Mansfield and Eric David, ECCP member organisations call on the European companies to abandon their plans to be involved in the project. Letter to the participants of EU led “Mission for growth”: We, the undersigned members of ECCP – the European Coordination of Committees and Associations for Palestine (ECCP) – a leading network of 47 organisations, NGO’s, unions and human rights organisations from 21 European countries are writing to you about your company’s participation in the recent EU-led mission to Israel named “Mission for growth” with the stated purpose of forging business ties with Israeli companies.

We are writing to make you aware about the legal, economic and reputational consequences to your business if these deals go ahead. According to the Israeli research center, WhoProfits, Israeli participants in “Mission for growth” programme directly contribute to and are complicit in acts that are illegal under international law. For example Elbit Systems, an Israeli military company is involved in the ongoing construction of Israel’s Wall, ruled illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004.(see Annex) Recognizing these grave violations in 2009, Norway’s sovereign wealth fund divested from Elbit Systems.1 We would like to remind you that business involvement in Israel contains legal implications. According to international law as applied in the 2004 International Court of Justice advisory opinion on Israel’s wall and settlements, third party states are violating their own obligations to not recognize nor render aid or assistance to these serious Israeli violations by allowing financial and economic activity with complicit entities. Since last year, the government of the Netherlands have taken the proactive step to warn companies domiciled in its territory of the legal implications of ties with Israeli companies with activities in the occupied territories. As a result, Vitens, the Netherlands’ largest water supplier, broke an agreement with Mekorot, Israel’s public water company, due to its role in plundering water from Palestinian aquifers in the West Bank.2

PGGM, the largest Dutch pension fund followed suit and divested from all Israeli banks due to “their involvement in financing Israeli settlements.”3 The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, supported by the EU and adopted by the UN Human Rights Council, explain that businesses must respect human rights and international humanitarian law. The Principles also urge states to withdraw support and not procure services from companies that persistently violate human rights.4 In September 2012, the UN General Assembly adopted a report on corporate complicity related to the illegal Israeli settlements by Richard Falk, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967. The report urges states to take steps to hold businesses accountable for their participation in Israeli violations of international law and to take steps to end business involvement in illegal Israeli settlements5 In March 2013, UN Human Rights Council adopted the report of the Independent Fact Finding Mission on the Israeli settlements. The Fact Finding Mission affirmed that involvement in settlement activities falls under the jurisdiction of the ICC and may result in criminal responsibility. Almost all Israeli companies are deeply complicit, directly or indirectly, in the oppression of Palestinians including its IT sector by drawing expertise from Israel’s military complex and Israel’s manufacturing companies, some based in settlements, with distribution outlets in settlements, helping to sustain them. By participating in the project and cooperating with Israeli companies involved in illegal Israeli settlements and military industry your company would be making a political decision to become deeply complicit with Israel’s violations of international law and Israel’s oppression of Palestinian rights. As such, your company would become a legitimate target for popular boycotts, divestments, protests and sustained campaigns to penalize your involvement and causing you economic losses similar to the loses already inflicted on French-company Veolia for its involvement in the settlement enterprise and British security company G4S6. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, from which we draw our strength, has been growing at the global level since its launch in 2005 of which the Economist magazine says it “is turning mainstream.”7 The BDS movement has consistently targeted complicit Israeli and international corporations — involved in Israel’s occupation, settlements and other international law infringements — such as SodaStream, G4S, Ahava, Mekorot, Elbit, Veolia, Caterpillar, Africa Israel, all Israeli banks, among others, with significant success and enormous reputational risks8. We will therefore monitor your company for business ties with Israel and urge you to abandon potential plans to cooperate with Israeli companies violating international law and human rights. Sincerely , European Coordination of Committees and Associations for Palestine (ECCP)

Endorsed by: Richard Falk -UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur for Palestine, 2008-2014 and Milbank Professor of International Law, Emeritus, Princeton University John Dugard – Professor Emeritus, University of Leiden, Former UN Special rapporteur on the situation of Human rights in the occupied palestinian Territory Michael Mansfield – Professor of Law, President of the Haldane Society and Amicus; practising Human Rights lawyer for 45 years Eric David – Law Professor, Free University of Brussels


Annex: Israeli participants in “Mission for growth” project violating human rights and international law

Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories – a private Israeli cosmetics corporation which operates from the occupied West Bank. Ahava is the only company which sells Dead Sea cosmetics and islocated in the occupied area of the Dead Sea. The Ahava factory and visitors’ center is located in the Mitzpe Shalem settlement, on the shore of the Dead Sea in the occupied part of the Jordan Valley and a large percentage of Ahava shares are held by two Israeli West Bank settlements.

9 – Afcon Holdings– The group engages in the design, manufacture, integration and marketing of electro-mechanical and control systems. A subsidiary of the group – Afcon Control and Automation has supplied CEIA metal detectors to Israeli military checkpoints in the occupied Palestinian territories; such as the Hebron Machpela Cave Checkpoint, the Beit Iba checkpoint and the Erez Terminal in Gaza, as well as checkpoints in the occupied Jordan Valley. Additionally, in 2009 the Afcon has supplied services to the Jerusalem light train project, which connects the settlement neighbourhoods in occupied East Jerusalem with the city center. The company also supplies services to the Israeli Army, Israeli prison service and the Israeli police.

10 – El-Go Team – Provider of security gates. Vehicle gates and turnstiles of the company are installed at Qalandia, Huwwara and Beit Iba checkpoints restricting the occupied Palestinian population movement in the occupied territory.

11 Elbit Vision Systems – the company manufactured electronic surveillance systems (LORROS cameras) to the separation wall project in the Ariel section. The company is a wholly owned subsidiary of Elbit Systems.

12 – Gila satellite network– Provider of satellite communication services. Antennas of the company are installed in checkpoints across the West Bank: Azzun Atma, Beit Iba and Anata – Shu’afat refugee camp. The company has also provided the Israeli Army with the VAST (very small aperture terminal) satellite communications system. Several satellite dishes were installed on armoured personnel carriers.

13 – Netafim – A global private company of irrigation technology, which also provides services and training to farmers and agriculture companies around the world. The company provides irrigation technologies and services to the settlements’ regional council of Mount Hebron and the settlement of Maskiut. The company’s employees volunteered in the Israeli army’s combat unit Oketz. The company employs 4000 employees, owns 16 manufacturing factories in 11 states and over 27 subsidiaries and representatives in over 110 countries. – LDD Tech – provides services to gas stations in settlements in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem.














Obama’s Legacy: “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff”

6 Jun



            So the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century past, and it will be for the century to come….The question we not whether America will lead but how we will lead, not just to secure our peace and prosperity but also to extend peace and prosperity around the globe.


                        President Barack Obama’s Commencement Address, West Point, May 22, 2014


            I make the poem of evil also, I commemorate that part also, I am myself just as evil as good, and my nation is…

Walt Whitman



            Cautioning against militarism at West Point President on May 22nd Obama in a speech mostly notable for its reassertion of what might be best understood as imperial nationalism of global scope declared the following: “Just because we have the best hammer [that is, military dominance] does not mean that every problem is a nail [that is be selective].” Remembering the failure of military intervention in Iraq, positive about achieving a possible diplomatic breakthrough in Iran, and burned by the paucity of results from his strongly endorsed troop surge in Afghanistan early in his presidency, Obama is reminding the graduating cadets, the future commanders of the American military organization, that leadership on the global stage should no longer be conceived as nothing more than a hard power geopolitical game. Interpreted in context, such a statement can and should be appreciated as an embrace of what some call ‘smart power’ shaping policy by a careful understanding of what will work and what will fail, that is, exhibiting a sensitivity to the limits as well as the role of military power in pursuing the American foreign policy agenda.


            For the wildly hostile Republicans such language is warped to justify their attack on Obama’s foreign policy as wimpy, exhibiting a declinist mentality that is partially admitted by the sleazy phrase used by the White House during the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, ‘leading from behind.’ The Republicans, resorting to their typically irresponsible hawkish opposition rhetoric, chided Obama for not proceeding to bomb Syria after alleging that they had crossed the red line in 2013 when chemical weapons were used in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta resulting in heavy civilian loss of life. From such neocon perspectives America only loses wars when is loses its nerve. From this perspective every failure of military intervention since Vietnam exhibits not the limits of hard power, but the refusal to do what it takes to achieve victory by which is meant a mixture of weaponry and fortitude. Fortunately, most often when in office the Republicans have a record of finishing the wars that Democrats start. This was what Eisenhower did in the Korean War, and Nixon in the Vietnam War. Republicans bark more often than they bite, while Democrats do the opposite.


            Obama’s rejection of mindless militarism is most welcome, but insufficient. Given this American record of demoralizing defeats, those on the right end of the political spectrum should feel reassured by his ultra nationalist language used to describe America’s global dominance: “Our military has no peer. America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world…our economy remains the most dynamic on Earth…Each year we grow more energy independent. From Europe to Asia, we are the hub of alliances unrivaled in the history of nations.” Recalling the oft-quoted boast of Madeline Albright, Obama went on to insist, “So the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century past, and it will be true for the century to come.”


            To exhibit national pride is understandable for a political leader, but the absence of any expression of national humility creates an overwhelming and deeply troubling impression of hubris, especially when the speaker heads the biggest military power in history and his country has its forces spread around the world so as to be ready to strike anywhere. We should be aware that for ancient Greeks hubris was a tragic flaw that makes the powerful complacent about their points of vulnerability and hence destined to freefall from dizzying heights to swampy depths. Such an interpretation is reinforced by Obama’s vision of the place of war making in American foreign policy: “The United States will use force, unilaterally, if necessary, when our people are threatened, when our livelihoods are at stake; when the security of our allies is in danger.” What is so stunning here is the absence of any even pro forma acknowledgement of a national commitment to carry out foreign policy in a manner respectful of international law and the authority of the United Nations. Deeply disturbing is Obama’s contention that war might be the appropriate way to go if “our livelihoods are at stake,” which seems to revive the dreams of economic imperialists who seize resources and safeguard unjust enrichment from foreign resources.


            With words that echo those of George W. Bush, Obama admits that “[i]nternational opinion matters, but America should never ask permission to protect our homeland and our way of life.” If America should never ask, is that true for others, for say Russia when it protects its homeland and way of life in Ukraine? To be fair, Obama does seem to qualify his unilateralism by saying that before leaping into war “we still need to ask tough questions about whether our actions are proportional and effective and just,” but these lofty sentiments are coupled with the glaring omission of the words “and legal.” Obama does advocate “appeals to international law” in the speech, but revealing only as one of several tools of American diplomacy that might be useful in mobilizing allies to join in multilateral recourse to military action against common adversaries.


            Toward the end of the speech Obama removes any ambiguity about the kind of prideful realism that he appropriates for the United States, and implicitly disallows to others, acknowledging lofty pretensions on a truly global scale: “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional in not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.” Are we stupid? After lauding militarism and unilateralism early in the speech only later to give this Wilsonian spin to the more self-serving meaning of American exceptionalisn the Obama language exhibits a disturbing blend of confusion and hypocrisy. Even the slightest familiarity with America’s use of force in international life over the course of recent decades, including during the Obama presidency, would lead any close observer to conclude that the only honest way to identify American exceptionalism is above all its “ability to flout international norms and the rule of law.” And not only ability, willingness as well, whenever expedient (consider global surveillance, drone warfare) from the perspective of national interests to engage in combat.


            As always there is in Obama’s comprehensive statements some visionary language meant to be uplifting. For instance, what he describes as the “final element in American leadership: our willingness to act on behalf of human dignity.” Where exactly? In response, to the oppressive rulership of Sisi’s Egypt? In relation to the civilian population of Gaza so long victimized by Israeli collective punishment? The only plausible answer to the first of these questions is ‘where and when it suits American interests, and not otherwise.’ In fairness, could be expect otherwise in a state-centric world.


            There is an awkward reference in the speech to Egypt that makes a mockery of any talk about human dignity and a foreign policy responsive to the claims of justice. Obama employs a strange phrase, perhaps to convey the sense of awkwardness, by starting his explanation of policy with the words “in countries like Egypt.” Such a phrase implies that there are other such countries, which itself seems dubious. We do not receive any hints as to which countries he means to include. Possibly Obama is referring to all those states with deplorable human rights records whose leaders are guilty of crimes against humanity in relation to their own citizens, but whose orientation is favorable to the West. Obama goes on to imply some misgivings about the positive American relationship with Egypt, “we acknowledge that our relationship is anchored in security interests, from peace treaties to Israel to shared efforts against violent extremism.” And then with hypnotic indifference to the tension between words and deeds, he explains, “[s]o we have not cut off cooperation [read as military assistance] with the new government, but we can and will persistently press for reforms that the Egyptian people have demanded.” How should we deconstruct this combination of reassurances and pressures to establish democracy, the rule of law, and human rights? I would say to paraphrase Obama that this strikes me as a callous example of ‘following from behind.’


            On such other issues as terrorism, drones, Iran, Syria, and Ukraine Obama affirms mainstream foreign policy positions with nothing new, not daring to endorse any initiative that would break fresh ground. There were some obvious opportunities that would have created a bit of credibility for the basic claim made by Obama that America, and America alone was capable of providing the world with benevolent leadership. Surely, Obama could have proposed that Iran join in an effort to end the war-threatening atmosphere relating to Syria and in view of Western objections to Iran’s nuclear weapons p. Or suggest that Israel’s refusal to stop settlement expansion in the West Bank and Jerusalem had doomed, once and for all, any hope of a negotiated and just end to the search for peace in Palestine and Israel that would benefit both peoples instead of voicing mild disapproval and stepping to one side. Or welcome the formation of a unity government that could finally represent the Palestinian people as a whole. Or recognize the complexity of competing national claims in Ukraine, acknowledging that the West as well as Russia was responsible for escalating tensions, thereby inhibiting prospects for a mutually beneficial accommodation. Or Obama might even have chosen such a moment to revive his 2009 Prague initiative by proposing that the time had come to table a draft treaty of nuclear disarmament.


            Such innovative steps would have stirred excitement as well as compromise, controversy, and debate. Such moves would have at least encouraged the hope that Obama’s vision of American leadership meant something for the world beyond a watered down neoconservative global agenda. To be sure, it is less belligerent in language and policy than what was being advocated during the Bush presidency. The Obama outlook is certainly more receptive to partnership, alliances, and multilateralism in managing global affairs. Ironically, the Obama conception of American leadership is depressingly similar in some of its essential features to the commencement address given by George W. Bush at West Point twelve years earlier: We were good, they are evil. Terrorism is the main security threat. We will act as we wish when our security and vital interests are at stake. No signs of deference to international law or the UN unless it reinforces American foreign policy. When American policies are challenged, it is up to the political leadership to decide what is right and wrong, but governments that are adversaries of the West should continue to be judged and punished by international procedures, including the International Criminal Court. No humility, and no retreat from the global projection of force as an American entitlement that others welcome.


            Perhaps, after all Hilary Clinton was right when she taunted Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign: “If you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen.” To clarify, not the heat that Clinton meant, but the heat that would be generated if Obama made a serious attempt in these last years of his presidency to translate his visionary language into concrete policies that addressed injustices and disciplined American foreign policy choices by an acceptance of the authority of international law and the UN. One can only daydream about such a legacy for the presidency of Barack Obama. Instead rather than the legacy of forbearance that he seems determined to leave behind, summarized by his own self-professed operating logic—‘don’t do stupid stuff.’


Invisible Horizons of a Just Palestine/Israel Future

4 Nov

I spent last week at the United Nations, meeting with ambassadors of countries in the Middle East and presenting my final report to the Third Committee of the General Assembly as my term as Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine comes to an end. My report emphasized issues relating to corporate responsibility of those companies and banks that are engaged in business relationships with the settlements. Such an emphasis seemed to strike a responsive note with many delegations as a tangible way of expressing displeasure with Israel’s continuing defiance of its international law obligations, especially in relation to the unlawful settlements being provocatively expanded in the West Bank and East Jerusalem at the very moment that the resumption of direct negotiations between the Palestine Authority and the Government of Israel is being heralded as a promising development.

There are two reasons why the corporate responsibility issue seems to be an important tactic of consciousness raising and norm implementation at this stage: (1) it is a start down the slippery slope of enforcement after decades of UN initiatives confined to seemingly futile rhetorical affirmations of Israeli obligations under international law, accompanied by the hope that an enforcement momentum with UN backing is underway; (2) it is an expression of tacit support for the growing global movement of solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinian people for a just and sustainable peace agreement, and specifically, it reinforces the claims of the robust BDS Campaign that has itself scored several notable victories in recent months.

My intention in this post is to put aside these issues and report upon my sense of the diplomatic mood at the UN in relation to the future of Israel/Palestine relations. There is a sharp disconnect between the public profession of support for the resumed peace negotiations as a positive development with a privately acknowledged skepticism as to what to expect. In this regard, there is a widespread realization that conditions are not ripe for productive diplomacy for the following reasons: the apparent refusal of Israel’s political leadership to endorse a political outcome that is capable of satisfying even minimal Palestinian aspirations; the settlement phenomenon as dooming any viable form of a ‘two-state’ solution; the lack of Palestinian unity as between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas undermining its representational and legitimacy status.

The most serious concern on the Palestinian side is whether protecting the interests and rights of the totality of the Palestinian people in a peace process can be achieved within the present diplomatic framework. We need to be constantly reminded that ‘the Palestinian people’ cannot be confined to those Palestinian living under Israeli occupation: refugees in neighboring countries; refugees confined within occupied Palestine, but demanding a right of return to their residence at the time of dispossession; the Palestinian minority living in Israel; and 4-5 million Palestinians who constitute the Palestinian diaspora and its underlying reality of enforced exile.

It was also clear that the Palestinian Authority is confronted by a severe dilemma: either to accept the inadequate proposals put forward by Israel and the United States or reject these proposals and be blamed once again by Tel Aviv and Washington for rejecting a peace offer. Only some Israeli anxiety that the Palestinians might actually accept the U.S. proposals might induce Israel to refuse, on its side, to accept what Washington proposes, and spare the Palestinians the embarrassment posed by the dilemma of swallowing or spitting. That is, Israel when forced to show its hand may actually be unwilling to allow any solution to the conflict based on Palestinian self-determination, even if heavily weighted in Israel’s facvor. In effect, within the diplomatic setting there strong doubts exist as to whether the present Israeli leadership would accept even a Palestinian statelet even if it were endowed with only nominal sovereignty. In effect, from a Palestinian perspective it seems inconceivable that anything positive could emerge from the present direct negotiations, and it is widely appreciated that the PA agreed take part only after being subjected to severe pressure from the White House and Secretary Kerry. In this sense, the best that Ramallah can hope for is damage control.

There were three attitudes present among the more thoughtful diplomats at the UN who have been dealing with the Palestinian situation for years, if not decades: the first attitude was to believe somehow that ‘miracles’ happen in politics, and that a two state solution was still possible; usually this outlook avoided the home of the devil, that is the place where details reside, and if pressed could not offer a scenario that explained how the settlements could be shrunk sufficiently to enable a genuine two-state solution to emerge from the current round of talks; the second attitude again opted to support the resumption of the direct talks because it was ‘doing something,’ which seemed preferable to ‘doing nothing,’ bolstering this rather vapid view with the sentiment ‘at least they are doing something’; the third attitude, more privately and confidentially conveyed, fancies itself to be the voice of realism in world politics, which is contemptuous of the advocacy of rights and justice in relation to Palestine; this view has concluded that Israel has prevailed, it has won, and all that the Palestinians can do is to accommodate an adverse outcome, acknowledging defeat, and hope that the Israelis will not push their advantage toward a third cycle of dispossession (the first two being 1948, 1967) in the form of ‘population transfer’ so as to address their one remaining serious anxiety—the fertility gap leading to a feared tension between professing democracy and retaining the primary Zionist claim of being a Jewish state, the so-called ‘demographic bomb.’

As I reject all three of these postures, I will not leave my position as Special Rapporteur with a sense that inter-governmental diplomacy and its imaginative horizons have much to offer the Palestinian people even by way of understanding evolving trends in the conflict, much less realizing their rights, above all, the right of self-determination. At the same time, despite this, I have increased my belief that the UN has a crucial role to play in relation to a positive future for the Palestinian people—reinforcing the legitimacy of seeking a rights based solution rather than settling for a power based outcome that is called peace in an elaborate international ceremony of deception, in all likelihood on the lawn of the White House. In this period the UN has been playing an important part in legitimating Palestinian grievances by continuously referencing international law, human rights, and international morality.

The Israelis (and officialdom in the United States) indicate their awareness of this UN role by repeatedly stressing their unconditional opposition to what is labeled to be ‘the delegitimation project,’ which is a subtle propagandistic shift from the actual demand to uphold Palestinian rights to the misleading and diversionary claim that Israel’s critics are trying to challenge Israel’s right to exist as a state sovereign state. To be sure, the Palestinians are waging, with success a Legitimacy War against Israel for control of the legal and moral high ground, but they are not at this stage questioning Israeli statehood, but only its refusal to respect international law as it relates to the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people.

Let us acknowledge a double reality. The UN is a geopolitical actor that is behaviorally manipulated by money and hard power on many fundamental issues, including Palestine/Israel; this stark acknowledgement severely restricts the effectiveness of the UN with regard to questions of justice. Fortunately, this is not the whole story. The UN is also a normative actor that articulates the grievances of peoples and governments, influences public discourse with respect to the global policy agenda, and has great and distinctive symbolic leverage in establishing the legitimacy of claims. In other words, the UN can say what is right, without being necessarily able to do what is right. This distinction summarizes the narratives of articulating the Palestinian claims and the justice of the Palestinian struggle without being able to overcome behavioral obstacles in the geopolitical domain that block their fulfillment.

What such a gap also emphasizes is that the political climate is not yet right for constructive inter-governmental negotiations, which would require both Israel and the United States to recalculate their priorities and to contemplate alternative future scenarios in a manner that is far more congruent with upholding the panoply of Palestinian rights. Such shifts in the political climate are underway, and are not just a matter of changing public opinion, but also mobilizing popular regional and global support for nonviolent tactics of opposition and resistance to the evolving status quo. The Arab Spring of 2011 initially raised expectations that such a mobilization would surge, but counter-revolutionary developments, political unrest, and economic panic have temporarily, at least, dampened such prospects, and have lowered the profile of the Palestinian struggle.

Despite such adverse developments in the Middle East from a Palestinian perspective, it remains possible to launch within the UN a broad campaign to promote corporate responsibility in relation to the settlements, which could gradually be extended to other unlawful Israeli activities (e.g. separation wall, blockade of Gaza, prison and arrest abuses, house demolitions). Such a course of action links efforts within the UN to implement international law with activism that is already well established within global civil society, being guided by Palestinian architects of 21st century nonviolent resistance. In effect, two disillusionments (armed struggle and international diplomacy) are coupled with a revised post-Oslo strategy giving the Palestinian struggle a new identity (nonviolent resistance, global solidarity campaign, and legitimacy warfare) with an increasing emancipatory potential.

Such an affirmation is the inverse of the ultra realist view mentioned above that the struggle is essentially over, and all that is left is for the Palestinians to admit defeat and for the Israelis to dictate the terms of ‘the peace treaty.’ While admitting that such a visionary worldview may be based on wishful thinking, it is also appropriate to point out that most political conflicts since the end of World War II have reflected the outcome of legitimacy wars more than the balance of hard power. Military superiority and geopolitical leverage were consistently frustrated during the era of colonial wars in the 1960s and 1970s. In this regard, it should be understood that the settler colonial enterprise being pursued by Israel is on the wrong side of history, and so contrary to appearances, there is reason to be hopeful about the Palestinian future and historical grounds not succumb to the dreary imaginings of those who claim the mantle of realism.

Why Congress Should Say to ‘No’ on Syria

6 Sep

[I am not sure this attempt at clarifying the present stage of the Syria debate adds much to my prior posts, yet I hope that it provides a kind of summary that is helpful in following the unfolding debate; all along I have felt that the Syrian impasse presented the UN and the world with a tragic predicament: trapped between doing something to stop the Assad regime from committing atrocities against its own people so as to retain power and the non-viabiility and illegality of military intervention, a predicament further complicated by the proxy war within the region along sectarian lines, by the strategic involvement of the U.S. and Russia on opposite sides, the maneuverings behind the scenes by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Israel, and the avowed Turkish support for regime-changing intervention; also, the overall regional turmoil, and past bad feeling in relation to the UN role in the overthrow of Qadaffi posed additional obstacles; efforts to shape the political outcome by military means, because of the proxy war dimensions (including an increasingly evident, although still surprising, tacit alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia) have so far only escalated the violence on the ground in Syria; Turkey, Russia, and the United States have all along  oscillated between principled and pragmatic responses favoring one side or the other, and exhibiting an ambivalent commitment to equi-distant diplomacy.]

There are three positions that have considerable support in Washington circles, although rarely acknowledged and not popular with the public, partly because of recent foreign policy failures, and partly too removed from perceptions of genuine security interests:

–undertake an attack to uphold ‘red line’ credibility of the president and the United States Government;

–undertake an attack too avoid an insurgent defeat, but on a scale that will not produce an insurgent victory; goal: keep the civil war going;

–undertake an attack to convince Iran that Obama is ready to use force if diplomatic coercion doesn’t work.

There are several other considerations that need to be taken into account:

–the Assad regime is guilty of numerous crimes against humanity aside from and prior to its probable (although far from assured) responsibility for the August 21st attack with chemical weapons on Ghouta; Syria lacks a legitimate government from the perspective of international criminal law; with respect to the violation of the Geneva Accord with respect to chemical weapons, the responsibility of Assad personally and the Syrian government generally has not been established beyond a reasonable doubt at this point;

–nevertheless, the Assad regime retains considerable support from various segments of the Syrian population, possesses substantial military capabilities, and is unlikely to collapse without a major ground invasion; the Assad government retains a measure of legitimacy from the perspective of the politics of self-determination;

–insurgent forces are divided, without coherent leadership, and are also responsible for committing atrocities, and contain political extremists in their ranks; a victory by the insurgency does not seem likely to lead to legitimate governing process from the perspective of law and morality;

–the negative American experiences of relying on war in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan should create a presumption against the authorization of force and reliance on military option in conflict situations; there is mounting evidence from past cases that the costs and risks associated with military options tend to be grossly understated during pre-war debates in the United States due partly to the political mobilization role played by mainstream media;

–the diplomatic alternative to force has been handicapped by its past abuse in the UN Security Council with respect to Libya authorization of ‘responsibility to protect’ undermining the trust of Russia, China, and others, and by the refusal to bring Iran into the political conversation as a key actor.

Against this background there are four important independent reasons for Congress to withhold authorization in this instance:

–a use of force that can neither be justified as self-defense, nor is authorized by the UN, is contrary to the UN Charter, which is an obligatory treaty, as well as being the most serious type of violation of international law in a post-Nuremburg world; the Nuremberg precedent with regard to crimes against peace (as the ‘crime of crimes’) should be respected, especially by the United States, which continues to serve for better and worse, as  the main normative architect of world order;

–the Kosovo precedent of ‘illegal, but legitimate’ is not applicable as a military attack is not likely to achieve either its political goals of ending the civil war and of causing the collapse of the Assad regime, nor its moral goals of stopping the slaughter and displacement of the Syrian people, and the devastation of their cities and country;

–even if the political and moral goals could be achieved, Congress, as well as the president, lacks the authority to authorized foreign policy uses of force that are incompatible with the UN Charter and international law;

–Congress should defer to domestic and world public opinion that clearly is opposed to a proposed military attack in the absence of an exceptional demonstration can be made as to the positive political and moral benefits of such an attack; for reasons mentioned, no such demonstration can be made in this instance; even the European Union has withheld support for a military attack on Syria at the

September meeting of the G-20 in St. Petersburg; only France among America’s traditional allies supported Obama’s insistence on reliance on a punitive military strike, supposedly for the sake of enforcing international law, bizarre reasoning because the rationale reduces to the following proposition: in view of the political realities, it is necessary to violate international law so as to be able to enforce it.



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