Tag Archives: UN Reform

Failing the people of Syria during Seven Years of Devastation and Dispossession

13 Nov

 

Failing the people of Syria during Seven Years of Devastation and Dispossession

 

[Prefatory Note: What follows is a wide-ranging interview in November 2017 that that concentrates on the failure of the UN and the world to rescue the people of Syria by a timely and effective humanitarian intervention. The interview was conducted by a Turkish journalist, Salva Amor, and is to be published in a magazine, Causcasus International. The text of the interview has been slightly modified.]

 

A missed chance 

 

  1. You previously referred to Syria as “an ideal case for humanitarian intervention” however, rather than becoming a prime example of positive humanitarian intervention it has turned into one of the greatest humanitarian crises with half of the country becoming refugees or internally displaced. 

 

What turned such an Ideal case for humanitarian intervention into one of the worst humanitarian responses we have seen in recent times?

 

Answer: I do not recall this reference to Syria as ‘an ideal case,’ but I must have meant it in a hypothetical sense, that is, as if ‘humanitarian intervention’ was ever called for, it was in Syria, especially at the early stages of the conflict. And yet I am inclined to think that regime-changing intervention was at all stages a mission impossible. We should keep in mind that the record of actual successful instances of what is labeled as ‘humanitarian intervention’ has been dismal, and when successful the motivation was not predominantly humanitarian, but rather a confluence of strategic interests of one sort or another with a humanitarian challenge. In Syria the strategic interests were not sufficiently strong to justify the likely costs, especially in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

Sometimes, the intervention is a cover for non-humanitarian goals, as in Afghanistan (2002), Iraq (2003), and Libya (2011) and may be effective in attaining its immediate goals of regime change but is extremely costly from the perspective of humanitarianism if assessed from the perspective of prolonged violence, societal chaos, and human suffering.

And only marginally successful strategically given the resilience of territorial resistance and the pressure for long-term occupation if the original gains of intervention are to be preserved.

 

At other times, the humanitarian rationale is present, as in Syria, but there is no strategic justification of sufficient weight, and what is done by external actors or the UN is insufficient to control the outcome, and often ends up intensifying the scale of suffering endured by the population. In effect, humanitarian intervention rarely achieves a net benefit from the perspective of the population that is being supposedly rescued. Perhaps, Kosovo (1999) is the best recent case where an alleged humanitarian intervention enjoyed enough strategic value to be effective, and yet seems to have left the Kosovar population better off afterwards, although even Kosovo is not a clear case.  

 

 

Failures & implications of inaction

 

  1. The humanitarian failures in Syria and for Syrian refugees in neighboring countries including Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq have had far-reaching implications for the EU with millions of refugees choosing to risk their lives in order to enter Europe causing the largest exodus since WWII. 

 

Could the surge of refugees fleeing to Europe have been avoided had a more positive and organized humanitarian intervention taken place?

 

Answer: It is possible that had Syria possessed large oil reserves, the intervention against the Damascus regime would have been robust enough to topple the regime, and create stability before combat conditions prompted massive internal population displacements and gigantic refugee flows, including the European influx. In this sense, Libya with oil, did prompt such an intervention, although it was an easier undertaking, as the Qaddafi regime had much less popular support than did the Assad regime, and was less well equipped militarily and lacked regional allies. In Syria, because of regional and global geopolitical cleavages, the politics of intervention and counter-intervention was far more complicated, and inhibited potential anti-regime interveners from making large commitments. At the early stages of the conflict Turkey and the United States miscalculated the costs and scale of a successful intervention in Syria, supposing that an indirect and low level effort could be effective in achieving regime change, which misunderstood the conditions prevailing in Syria.  

 

 

The best response

 

  1. In your experience, what would have been the ideal humanitarian response to the war in Syria? And who would have been best to implement it? 

 

Answer: As my earlier responses hinted, there is no ideal response, and the current world order system is not reliably capable of handling humanitarian intervention in a situation such as existed in Syria. To have any chance of effectiveness would require entrusting the undertaking to one or more powerful states, but even then the situation that would follow, is highly uncertain. In a post-colonial setting, there is bound to be strong nationalist and territorial resistance to outside intervention and occupation, generally producing serious prolonged chaos. If the country is very small and can be overwhelmed (Granada, Panama) without counter-intervention the undertaking will sometimes work. Iraq serves as a clear example of an intervention that did rid the country of a brutal tyrant, but produced internal violence among competing regions, tribes, and generated extreme sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites, as well as a series of ethnic, tribal, and regional battles.

 

In a better governed world, which is far from existing, the UN would have acted robustly and with the support of the regional governments in the Middle East, the geopolitical actors (U.S. and Russia) would have not pursued their strategic agendas, and a politically neutral intervention would have created the conditions for a post-Assad democratic political transition, including imposing accountability for past crimes. Merely mentioning this desirable scenario is enough to reveal its utopian character. Especially in the Middle East, geopolitics of a regional and global scope badly distort all efforts to fashion a humanitarian response to repression and severe violations of human rights. In the background, but not far in the background, is the relevance of oil. The countries that have experienced massive interventions (Iraq, Libya) possessed abundant oil reserves, while those that have little or no oil have either been ignored or endured prolonged bloody conflict, of which Syria is the worst case, having become the scene of competing and offsetting interventions motivated by political and strategic ambitions with only a thin propaganda rationale associated with alleviating a humanitarian crisis, which at best, was a much subordinated goal of the interveners on both sides.

 

 

Lessons for Future

 

4a. How can the world learn from the humanitarian failures and inaction that occurred in Syria for the past 7 years? What opportunities to protect, defend or support the Syrian people have we missed?

 

Answer: In my view, it is a mistake to speak of ‘inaction’ in the Syrian context. There have been massive interventions of all sorts on both sides of the conflict by a variety of actors, but none decisive enough to end the conflict, and none primarily motivated by humanitarian concerns. Of course, here and there, lives could have been saved, especially if the balance of forces within Syria had been better understood at an early stage of the conflict in the West. What intervention achieved in Syria was largely a matter of magnifying the conflict, and attendant suffering. The conflict itself was surrounded by contradictory propaganda claims making the reality difficult to perceive by the public, and therefore there was political resistance to more explicit and possibly more effective regime changing intervention. 

 

Indifference:

 

4b. Is there any correlation between the rise of Islamophobia and the world’s inaction towards Syrian people’s suffering? Has the ongoing drumming of hatred towards the Islamic religion created a generation of indifference towards those of them who are suffering? Or is such wide indifference a natural response to such overwhelming humanitarian crisis?

 

Answer: The indifference in relation to Syria is mainly a matter of public confusion and distrust. Confusion about the nature of the conflict and distrust as to the motives of political actors that have intervened on either side. The spike in Islamophobia is attributable to the interplay of the European refugee crisis and the occurrence of terrorist incidents that are perpetrated by ISIS and its supporters. Of course, the massive refugee flow was prompted by the violence in the Syrian combat zones, which has made Europe most interested in resolving the conflict even if meant allowing a criminal regime to remain in power.

 

I suppose that the indifference noted in your question is more evident in relation to the plight of the Rohingya people in Myanmar that in response to Syria where, as I have been suggesting, the political context dominates the human suffering, and the Islamic identity of the victimized people is secondary. Also, it is worth recalling the global indifference to genocide in Rwanda (1994) that could have prevented,

or at least minimized, by a timely, and relatively small scale intervention. And on occasion, if the strategic context is supportive, the West will intervene on the Islamic side as in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and there in opposition to the Christian side.  

 

 

  1. The UN has handed over a large portion of the $4bn of its aid effort in Syria to the Syrian regime or partners who have been approved by Bashar Al Assad. How does the UN justify providing tens of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to one of the worst governments, that has besieged, starved, bombed and killed hundreds of thousands of its own people? 

 

Answer: I suppose the basic justification for this behavior is that from the viewpoint of the UN the Damascus regime remains the legitimate government of Syria representing the country at the UN. This is of course a legalistic justification, and evades the real humanitarian crisis as well as the crimes of Assad’s regime. So far, because there is a geopolitical standoff, regionally (Iran v. Saudi Arabia) and globally (Russia v. the U.S. and Turkey), the UN has tried to remain aloof from the ambit of political controversy to the extent possible while doing what it can to alleviate human suffering. I am not knowledgeable about whether the UN aid is reaching the civilian population as claimed. The language of your question suggests that there should be some mechanism for disqualifying a government that commits repeated crimes against its own people from being treated by the UN as a normal member state, but this is not likely to happen anytime soon, and it is tricky as the UN System is built around state-centric ideas of world order.

 

 

The right to torture

 

  1. The world was shocked in 2015 when the Caesar files were releasedrevealing human stories behind 28,000 deaths in Syrian prisons, most, if not all were tortured prior to their death.Two years later no action has been taken in regards to detainees and torture in prisons. There has been no action or desire to send observers to Syrian Prisons nor to investigate those who were named in the Caesar files for war crimes.What must a dictator have to do for the international community to respond to his crimes? Comparing Libyan intervention with Syria

 

Answer: I took part recently in a ceremony in Nuremberg Germany that awarded a human rights prize to the photographer, whose identity is kept secret for his safety, responsible for the Caesar Report containing photographic images of Syrian prison torture of some 11,000 prisoners, most of whom are reportedly now dead. There is no question that these images are horrifying, but serious issues have been raised as to the authenticity of this photographic archive. It has been authenticated as genuine by Human Rights Watch, but has also been used by persons closely connected with the U.S. Government to build a case for war crimes prosecutions, particularly against Bashar al Assad. I am not in a position to assess the controversy, yet do not doubt that the Damascus regime has committed many atrocities and are responsible for the great majority of civilian deaths over the course of the last six years in Syria. At the same time the anti-regime forces, which are fragmented, have also committed many war crimes.

 

These issues of criminal accountability cannot be reliably answered from a distance, or merely on the basis of media reports. What is required is a credible international fact finding commission of inquiry with adequate access to whatever evidence and witnesses remain available.

 

 

 

  1. Human rights groups have estimated that no less than half a million people have died in the last 7 years in Syria. Although there are many violent factions in Syria, more than 94% of all deaths have been caused by Syrian Government or Russian strikes. In comparison Libya’s Muammer Gaddafi had killed an 257 people including combatants and injured 949 with less than 3% being women and children when UN security council intervened. On March 17, 2011, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1973 (2011) authorizing “regional organizations or arrangements…to take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack” in Libya. The resolution was adopted with ten votes for, none against, and five abstentions. In hindsight, many have now questioned whether that intervention was purely to “protect civilians”. Is the UN Security Council still a reliable body that can be relied upon to protect the civilian? The UN’s Responsibility Not – To Protect the Civilian Population

 

Answer: The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) UN norm is interpreted and practice is governed by the UN Security Council, and hence is completely subordinated to the manipulations of geopolitics. In this regard, the lesser humanitarian hazard in Libya led to a UN regime-changing mission because the Permanent Members opposed to intervention (China, Russia) were persuaded not to cast their veto for what was being proposed, which was a limited humanitarian mission to protect the then entrapped civilian population of Benghazi. In fact, the NATO undertaking expanded the mission far beyond the Security Council mandate from its inception, angering Russia and China that had abstained out of deference to pleas relating to the humanitarian claims put forward by the NATO members of the Security Council. They later justified their opposition to a more pro-active UN role in Syria by reference to this failure of trust, the unwillingness of the intervening states to respect the limits of the mandate.

 

What is important to appreciate is that R2P and other UN undertakings must adhere to the constraints of geopolitics. As disturbing as inaction with respect to Syria, is the UN silence with regard to the abuse of the civilian populations of Gaza and Rakhine (Myanmar). It is only when a geopolitical consensus exists, which is quite rare (e.g. failure with respect to Yemen) that it is possible for the UN to play an important humanitarian role in shaping behavior and protecting civilians.

 

 

  1. Why was The UN’s responsibility to protect (R2P ) invisible in the last 7 years in Syria? What must be done now, in order to implement an R2P operation in Syria to avoid further suffering? In past years vetoes have blocked humanitarian intervention.

 

Answer: Part of my response here has already been given in relation to the prior question. I would only add here that the abolition of the veto would be a crucial step, or even an agreement among permanent members of the Security Council to refrain from casting a veto in humanitarian contexts such as Syria. The problem is that the veto powers are extremely unlikely to give up their right of veto, partly because such states do not voluntarily give up power and partly because humanitarian issues are almost always inseparable from diverse and often antagonist geopolitical interests, and therefore the claims are not perceived as humanitarian. This is certainly the case with regard to Syria. The take away conclusion is that the international system as it now functions is rarely motivated by humanitarian considerations when they come into conflict with the strong political preferences and strategic priorities of principal states, and this is true even when the humanitarian crisis is as severe and prolonged as in Syria.

 The most constructive response, in view of these realities, is to advocate global reform, but this will not happen without a major mobilization of people throughout the world or as a frantic response to some earth-shaking catastrophe.

 

 

  1. I understand that there was a veto by Russia and thus a solution was not passed, however, in such cases, when one of the countries that is involved in the atrocities is allowed to veto, does it not raise the alarm?Surely, this situation in Syria and the human cost provides enough of a precedent for (if not the UN, those who care about preventing further atrocities) a new chapter to be drafted and implemented into the UN. –Do you believe that it is time for the UN to adopt a new chapter into itsCharter that would prevent dictators or countries with vested interest in a war from overpowering UN Security Council votes? Normalizing atrocities at the global level.

 

Answer: Yes, there was much criticism of Russia for blocking action on Syria, but Russia was acting in accord with the constitutional structure of the UN. The U.S. uses its veto in a comparable way to protect Israel and other allies, and equally irresponsibly, from a moral or humanitarian point of view. It should be remembered that the League of Nations fell apart because major states would not participate, including the United States. The idea of the veto was designed to persuade all major states to participate, with the goal of universality of membership, but at the cost of engendering paralysis and irresponsible obstructions to action whenever veto powers disagree sharply. Your questions raise the crucial issue if this was too high a price to pay for the sake of maintaining universality of participation. One consequence of this tradeoff between geopolitics and effectiveness is to weaken public respect for the UN as an agency for the promotion of justice and decency in global affairs.

 

As specified in Article 108 of the UN Charter requires the approval of 2/3rds of the entire membership of the UN as well as all five Permanent Members of the Security Council, which means that it will not happen in the foreseeable future in relation to any politically sensitive issue. When World War II ended there was the hope and illusion that countries that cooperated against fascism would continue to cooperate to maintain the peace. As should have been anticipated, it was a forlorn hope.

 

 

  1. The White House accepts Assad’s continued rule in Syria as a “political reality” while European leaders have also taken a soft approach with French president declaring he no longer saw the removal of Assad as necessary. In your view, how do such civilized countries justify good relations with Assad? ISIS the monster that invites intervention: ISIS Affects the West, Assad does not.

 

Answer: Your comment on ISIS is a way of expressing my view that these issues are dominated by geopolitical calculations. ISIS as horrible as it is has not been nearly as responsible for the quality and quantity of suffering inflicted upon the Syrian people by the Damascus regime.

 

At this point, and given the unavailability of humanitarian intervention, the best Plan B for Syria is to seek a sustainable ceasefire, and this would undoubtedly require making some unpalatable compromises, including the possible retention of Assad as head of state. After all, there are many heads of state with much blood on their hands, and yet their legitimacy as rulers is essentially unchallenged. The way the world is organized makes it unable to impose criminal responsibility on the leaders of sovereign states except in special circumstances of total victory as in World War II, or more recently, in relation to the criminal prosecutions of Saddam Hussein and Milosevic, particular enemies of the West.

 

 

  1. Many Syrian groups have released statements to express their dismay at the international community for only intervening to strike ISIS. The Global Coalition’s planes hover over Deir Al Zour and Raqa to target ISIS (often causing civilian casualties) while in the same sky Assad Planes carrying deadly Barrel Bombs hover over nearby towns unperturbed. A) Is there balance in the international community’s actions in Syria? While Assad only kills or affects the lives of Syrians in Syria, ISIS became a threat to western countries. Terrorist attacks in the west killed and injured civilians in the west.
  2. B) Is there an underlying message that the West will “Fight against ISIS in Syria, because it affects people in our countries, but leave Assad because he has no impact on their own people?”

 

Answer: Yes, this is certainly a perceptive observation. When the issue is fairly large scale and internal, and where Muslims are the victims, any effort to intervene is bound to be feeble, at best, which it was in the early stages of 2011-2013 when Turkey and the U.S. cooperated in supporting Friends of Syria, which was mistakenly thought capable of shifting the balance sufficiently in Syria to produce the collapse of the Damascus regime. When that failed, it became obvious that the costs of an effective intervention were viewed in the West as too high and dangerous. Considering the Iranian and Russian alignments with the Syrian government doomed an anti-Damascus intervention.

 

And as you suggest, the West views ISIS as dangerous enemy, and is prepared to take bigger risks and bear higher costs because Western homeland security is at stake. ISIS is a proclaimed enemy of the West that is perceived as responsible for violent acts, Syria is not, being regarded, at most, as an unattractive regime, partly because in the past, hostile toward Israel. Taking account of these circumstances, the political realist seeks a ceasefire in Syria while going all out to achieve the destruction of ISIS.

 

 

  1. Please kindly note any comments, suggestions, opinions, thoughts you have on the Syrian conflict and in particular on the west’s reaction to it and the UN’s role. Also, on what you feel can and should be done from now on. Thanks so much.

 

Answer: From my earlier responses I am skeptical about what can be done beyond the obvious: give up any hope of securing support for an R2P mandate to protect the Syrian people, and pursue a ceasefire so as to end the suffering. This is not justice, but it may at least spare the Syrian people further trauma and bloodshed.

 

What the Syrian tragedy and ordeal reveals vividly is the inability of the international community, as now organized, to deal with a humanitarian crisis unless a geopolitical consensus is present in a relatively strong form, regionally and globally. Such a consensus is not even enough if the difficulties of intervention are seen as producing heavy casualties for the intervening side and would impose burdens of a prolonged occupation to achieve post-intervention political order and security.

 

Europe would benefit at this time from a Syrian ceasefire and the restoration of political normalcy. It would undoubtedly reduce the pressure on European countries created by the Syrian refugee flow, which has given right wing political parties their greatest strength and largest level of popular support since the end of World War II.

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The Spiritual Sources of Legal Creativity: The Legacy of Father Miguel d

31 Oct

 

[Preliminary Remarks: What follows is the modified transcript of a talk given at Fordham University School of Law honoring the memory of the recently deceased Maryknoll priest, Father Miguel d’Escoto, who had been both the Foreign Minister of Sandinista Nicaragua and President of the UN General Assembly, as well as pastor to the poor in the spirit of Pope Francis, an extraordinary person who fused a practical engagement in the world with a deeply spiritual nature that affected all who were privileged to know and work with him.]

 

THE INAUGURAL FR. MIGUEL D’ESCOTO

MEMORIAL LECTURE: “THE SPIRITUAL SOURCES OF LEGAL CREATIVITY”

October 24, 2017

Program

Fordham University School of Law

150 West 62nd Street Room 3-03

 

Chair:

Kevin M. Cahill, M.D.

University Professor, IIHA, Fordham University

Lecturer:

Richard A. Falk

Professor Emeritus, Princeton University School of Law

 

Discussant:

Martin S. Flaherty

Leitner Family Professor of Law, Fordham Law School

 

************************************************************************

 

It is a humbling honor to speak at this gathering of remembrance dedicated to a truly great human being who inspired and touched the lives and activities of so many of us in this room. Kevin Cahill is among those here who had such an intimate and sustained friendship with Father Miguel. Kevin is also a person with his own abundant inspirational gifts, and I remain deeply grateful to him for originally bringing me into contact with Miguel.

 

Others here today could assuredly speak more knowingly about the person. I will only offer this personal observation: Miguel exhibited a remarkable quality of moral radiance that was immediately apparent to all those fortunate enough to cross his path. The only person in my experience who possessed a comparable depth of ethical being was Nelson Mandela with whom I had a single and brief, yet memorable, encounter.

 

The title given to my remarks is something I admit imposing upon myself, and now at this moment of delivery strikes me now as far too ambitious. I chose such a theme because it does reflect the most enduring and empowering dimension of my association with Miguel, and seemed appropriate to reflect upon in the venerable academic venue of the Fordham School of Law.

 

My point of departure is this: if we believe, which many do not, that justice is the proper end of law, then we must struggle to overcome the calculative or transactional mentality that dominates our legal culture, restricting our attitudes and endeavors involving law to the domain of the feasible. I am fully aware that I am endorsing an unconventional outlook by elevating the moral imagination and what I would call ‘utopian realism.’ This kind of formulation disregards the conventional understanding of law as essentially offering a suite of techniques for problem-solving that presupposes a view of politics as ‘the art of the possible.’

 

It is this kind of ethical radicalism that made the life of Father Miguel so exemplary, and in the best sense, ‘revolutionary,’ for all those whose lives he affected whether in ministering to the poor or challenging the high and mighty, whether acting in a pastoral capacity or as a man of the world. It is important to appreciate that Miguel was both an ardent Nicaraguan nationalist and a passionate citizen of the world, what I call a ‘citizen pilgrim,’ embarked on a pilgrimage to a global future that embodies peace with justice.

Let me preface this inquiry into the spiritual sources of legal creativity with a general remark that pertains particularly to international law. I may be almost alone among law professors in believing that that international law is the field of law that is most relevant to the ultimate survival of the human species. The sad reality is that international law continues to struggle for survival as a field of study, being often denigrated, evaded, and violated by the most powerful governments on the planet whenever law is seen as blocking a preferred policy and there are always many apologists among the ranks of legal experts and diplomats ready to offer a comforting rationalization.

 

And yet viewed from a perspective other than war/peace and security, international law in relation to trade and investment has basically served to protect the interests of the rich and powerful, while shackling the poor and vulnerable. In other words, international law has this dual face: it bends to the geopolitical will of the militarily powerful while often cruelly imposing accountability on the weak. At the founding of the UN a Mexican diplomat caustically observed that ‘we have created an organization that regulates the mice while the tigers roam freely.’ And so it is.

 

It is against this background that Miguel d’Escoto’s spiritual wisdom creates a contrast with business as usual in the world of real politik. Even for most global reformers, the criterion for constructive action is a realistic appreciation of achievable limits, what I would identify as horizons of feasibility. We are living increasingly in a world in which there are growing gaps between what is feasible and what is necessary, what I identify as horizons of necessity. Adapting to climate change in the Age of Trump underscores this menacing gap between feasibility and necessity. As a diplomat Father Miguel was almost unconcerned with feasibility as conventionally understood if it stood in the way of necessity or desirability. He was deeply sensitive to the imperatives of necessity, and even more so to the moral and spiritual imperatives of doing what is right under a particular set of circumstances, and for this reason alone he was most responsive to what I identify here as horizons of spirituality.

 

He was motivated by a belief, undoubtedly reflecting his religious faith, in the potency of right reason, and on this basis conceived of international law as a crucial vehicle for realizing such a vision, embracing with moral enthusiasm a kind of ‘politics of impossibility’ in which considerations of justice outweighed calculations of feasibility or the obstacles associated with geopolitics. It is with an awareness of the trials and tribulation of Nicaragua and its long suffering population that Father Miguel turned to law as an imaginative means of empowerment.

 

Let me illustrate by reference to the historic case that Nicaragua brought against the United States in the early 1980s at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. It was a daring legal flight of moral fancy to suppose that tiny and beleaguered Nicaragua could shift its struggle from the bloody battlefields of U.S. armed intervention and a mercenary insurgency against the Sandinista Government of which he was then Foreign Minister to the lofty legal terrain that itself had been originally crafted to reflect the values and interests of dominant states, the geopolitical players on the global stage. But more than this it was a brilliant leap of political imagination to envision the soft power of law neutralizing the hard power of high tech weaponry in a high stakes ideological struggle being waged in the midst of the Cold War.

 

Such an attempt to shift the balance of forces in an ongoing conflict by recourse to international law and the World Court had never before been made in any serious way. It was a David and Goliath challenge that the World Court as the highest judicial institution in the UN System had yet to face in a war/peace context, and it turned out to be a test of the integrity of the institution.

 

Let me recall the situation in Nicaragua briefly. The United States was supporting a right-wing insurgency, the counterrevolutionary remnant of the Somoza dictatorship, a single family that had cruelly and corruptly ruled Nicaragua between 1936 and 1974 on behalf of corporate America (the era of ‘banana republics’), leaving the country in impoverished ruins when the Somoza dynasty finally collapsed. The Somoza-oriented insurgents were known as the Contras, and were called ‘freedom fighters’ by their American sponsors and paymaster because they were opposing the Sandinista Government that had won a war of national liberation in 1979, but was accused by its detractors of leftist tendencies and Soviet sympathies, which was the right-wing ideological way of obscuring the true affinity of the Sandinista leadership with the teachings of Liberation Theology rather than with the secular dogmatics of Marxism. It was a way of depriving the people of Nicaragua of their inalienable right of self-determination. The United States Government via the CIA was training and equipping the Contras, and quite overtly committing acts of war by mining and blockading Managua, Nicaragua’s main harbor and its lifeline to the world.

 

It was these interventionary undertakings that flouted the authority of international law and the UN Charter. Father Miguel’s addressed the UN General Assembly in his capacity as Nicaragua’s acting Foreign Minister, vividly describing the conflict with some well-chosen provocative words: “It is obvious that the war to which Nicaragua is being subjected is a U.S. war, and the so-called Contras are merely hired hands serving the diabolical objectives of the Reagan Administration.” Later in the same speech he condemned the U.S. Government for recently appropriating an additional $100 million “to finance genocide against our people.” [Address to UNGA, Nov. 3, 1986]

 

I quote this robust language partly to show that Father Miguel’s spiritual nature did not always mean a gentle demeanor or denote the absence of a fighting spirit. As here, when deemed appropriate to the situation, Miguel readily relied on undiplomatic candor to get his point across. He was also insistent on using such occasions to talk truth to power and to lay blame and responsibility for the torment of the Nicaraguan people where it belonged, however impolitic it was to do so.

 

Without going into the details of the case, it was possible for Nicaragua to lodge such a complaint against the United States because the U.S. Government had earlier agreed to accept the authority of the ICJ if the other side in an international conflict had been similarly committed. With this awareness, Father Miguel in his role as Foreign Minister (1979-90) realized two things: that the sovereign rights of Nicaragua were being overridden in a manner in flagrant violation of international law and that the World Court was supposed to provide countries with a nonviolent option of resolving international legal disputes, seen as an important contribution to maintaining world peace that the U.S. had itself strongly championed throughout most of the 20th century.

 

It may not seem so unusual for a small country to take advantage of a potential judicial remedy, but in fact it had never happened—no small state had ever gone to the World Court to protect itself against such military intervention, and to do so on behalf of a progressive government in the Third World in the midst of the Cold War seemed to many at the time like a waste of time and money that Nicaragua could ill afford.

 

It is here where one begins to grasp this potentially revolutionary idea of relying upon the spiritual sources of legal creativity. Father Miguel was convinced that what the United States Government was doing was legally and morally wrong, and that it was an opportune time for the mice to fight back against the predator tiger. It was an apt occasion to act by reference to horizons of spirituality.

 

Yet this did not mean that Miguel would ignore the pragmatic dimensions of effectiveness. Nicaragua managed to persuade Harvard law professor, Abram Chayes, to act on their behalf as head legal counsel. This was a brilliant tactical move that I applauded at the time (even though it meant that as Nicaragua’s second choice I lost out). Aside from being a first-class international lawyer with a high global profile, Chayes had previously served as John F. Kennedy’s Legal Advisor and close confidant at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The symbolism could not have been more pointed, underlining the fact that Chayes was committed to upholding international law rather than being a combatant in the ideological sideshow carried on throughout the Cold War. Not surprisingly, the Wall Street Journal audaciously described Chayes as ‘a traitor’ for accepting such a role.

 

I had the opportunity to work with Chayes and Father Miguel in the American Irish Historical Society here in Manhattan that was operating under the benign tutelage of none other than Dr. Kevin Cahill. We worked hard for several days as a team developing the arguments both as to the authority of the ICJ to adjudicate, what we lawyers call ‘jurisdiction,’ to be decided in a separate preliminary decision, as well as on the substance of Nicaragua’s allegations, which constituted the second phase of the litigation. What was so impressive to me then, and even now, almost 40 years later, is that this effort to combine a somewhat utopian motivated legal undertaking with a practical mastery of the technical dimensions of the case illustrated for me the extraordinary blending of spiritually grounded, yet worldly wisdom with the down to earth skills of legal craft.

 

The outcome of the Nicaragua narrative is too complicated to describe properly, but in short—counsel for Nicaragua persuaded the Court that it had jurisdictional authority, at which point the United States petulantly, yet not unexpectedly, withdrew from the proceedings correctly realizing that if it could not prevail at this jurisdictional phase it had virtually no chance to have its legal arguments accepted at the merits phase of the case. Further, the U.S. Government was so displeased with the ICJ that it seized the occasion to renounce its earlier formal acceptance of what is technically referred to as ‘compulsory jurisdiction,’ which meant that no state could commence such an action against the USG in the future, and that the U.S. was itself permanently foreclosed from proceeding against a state against which it had legal grievances unless that state gave its consent.

 

This retreat from adjudicating international legal disputes has been an unintended and unfortunate lasting effect of the Nicaragua case. The American stance of viewing international law as only viable when it supports its geopolitical tactics has sent a damaging message to the world. It has definitely weakened the role and potential of the ICJ and of international judicial authority generally. In one sense, the US withdrawal was understandable for those who are driven to shape foreign policy by feasibility calculations rather than by certain abiding values such as, here, adhering to the rule of law. It hardly required a legal genius in the State Department to anticipate that if the Court upheld its legal authority to pronounce upon the controversy, then it would almost certainly rule in favor of Nicaragua on the substantive issues. Despite some technical issues involving the selection of the applicable legal authority, given the sweeping prohibitions of international law and the UN Charter against uses of force except in situations of self-defense against a prior armed attack, the pro-Nicaragua outcome was entirely predictable.

 

What was rather intriguing from a jurisprudential point of view was that despite its much hyped boycott of the proceedings and accompanying denunciation of the jurisdictional finding, the U.S. in the end quietly complied with the principal finding in The Hague, namely, that the naval blockade of Nicaragua’s harbors was unlawful. As would be expected, the USG never acknowledged that it was complying, nor did Nicaragua dance in the streets of Managua, but the cause/effect relationship between the judicial decision and compliant behavior was clear to any close observer.

 

There was then some reality to the expression ‘the force of law,’ and the USG, even during the Reagan presidency, did not want to stand before the world as openly defying the law, even international law. Such an assessment may have reflected the fact that the U.S. Government was in the midst of a struggle to win the legitimacy war being waged against the Soviet Union, which partly hinged on the relative reputation of these two dueling superpowers in relation to respect for international law and human rights, signature issues of ‘the free world.’

 

For me this Nicaragua experience was a compelling example of Father Miguel’s achievements that followed directly from his deep commitment to the horizons of spirituality and decency. It was far from the only instance. Let me mention two others very quickly. One of my other connections with Father Miguel was to serve as one of his Special Advisors during his year as President of the UN General Assembly thoughout its 63rd session, 2008-09. As continues to be the case, life could become difficult for any leading UN official who openly opposed Israel. Father Miguel was deeply aware of the Palestinian ordeal and unabashedly supportive of my contested role as Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine on behalf of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. When I was detained in an Israeli prison and then expelled from Israel at the end of 2008, Father Miguel wanted to organize a press conference in NYC to give me an opportunity to explain what had happened and defend my position. I declined his initiative, perhaps unadvisedly, as I didn’t want to place Miguel in the line of fire sure to follow.

 

At the end of 2008 Israel launched a massive attack against Gaza, known as Cast Lead, and Father Miguel sought to have the General Assembly condemn the attack and call for an immediate ceasefire and Israeli withdrawal. It was a difficult moment for Father Miguel, feeling certain that this was the legally and morally the right thing to do. Yet as events proceeded and diplomatic positions were disclosed, Miguel was forced to recognize that the logic of geopolitics worked differently, in fact so starkly differently that even the diplomat representing the Palestinian Authority at the UN intervened to support a milder reaction than what Miguel deemed appropriate. Unlike his Nicaraguan experience, here the backers of feasibility prevailed, but in a manner that Father Miguel could never reconcile himself to accept.

 

I met many diplomats at UN Headquarters here in NY who said that no one had ever occupied a high position at the UN with Father Miguel’s manifest quality as someone so passionately dedicated to righteous principle. Pondering this, it occurred to me that one possible exception was Dag Hammarskjöld, an early outstanding UN Secretary General, who died in a plane crash, apparently assassinated in 1961 for his principled, yet geopolitically inconvenient, dedication to peace and justice. From his private writings we know that Hammarskjöld’s UN efforts also sprung from wellsprings of spirituality.

 

Most GA presidents take the post as an honorific feather in their cap, the symbolic culmination of a public sector career, and spend the year presiding over numerous tedious meetings and hosting an endless series of afternoon receptions, but never make any effort to influence, much less enhance, the role of the General Assembly or otherwise strengthen the UN as an institution of potential global governance. Miguel, in contrast worked tirelessly to make the UN more effective, more respectful of law, more democratic, and above all, more sensitive to claims reflective of global justice.

 

Miguel took full advantage of his term as president of the General Assembly to provide venues within the Organization that offered humane alternatives to neoliberal economic globalization. He sponsored and organized meetings at the UN designed to overcome current patterns of economic and ecological injustice, making use of the presence in New York City of such non-mainstream economists as Jeffrey Sachs and Joseph Stiglitz, and the prominent Canadian activist author, Maude Barlow. Here again Father Miguel demonstrated his grounded spirituality by once more combining the visionary with the practical.

 

I had the opportunity to work with Father Miguel on several proposals to raise the profile and role of the General Assembly as the most representative and democratic organ of the UN. This initiative was rather strategic and partly meant to counter the US-led campaign to concentrate UN authority in Security Council so that Third World aspirations and demands could be effectively thwarted, and the primacy of geopolitics reestablished after the assault mounted in the 1970s by the then ascendant Nonaligned Movement.

 

What I have tried to describe is this deep bond in the life and work of Father Miguel between the spirituality of his character and motivations and the practicality of his involvement in what the German philosopher, Habermas, calls ‘the lifeworld.’ I find it indicative of Father Miguel’s deep spiritual identity that he suffered a punitive response to his life’s work from the institution he loved and dedicated his life to serving, being suspended in 1985 by Pope John Paul II from the priesthood because of his involvement in the Nicaraguan Revolution. Miguel was reinstated 29 years later by Pope Francis, who many view as a kindred spirit to Miguel.

 

There is an object lesson here for all of us: in a political crisis the moral imperative of service to people and ideals deserves precedence over blind obedience to even a cherished and hallowed institution. This would undoubtedly almost always pose a difficult and painful choice, but it was one that defined Father Miguel d’Escoto at the core of his being, which he expressed over and over by doing the right thing in a spirit of love and humility, but also in a manner that left no one doubting his firmness, his affinities and commitments, as well as his unwavering and abiding convictions.

 

As I suggested at the outset, the daring and creativity that Father Miguel brought to the law and to his work at the UN sprung from spiritual roots that were deeply grounded in both religious tradition and in an unshakable solidarity with those among us who are poor, vulnerable, oppressed, and victimized. For Miguel spirituality did not primarily equate with peace, but rather with justice and an accompanying uncompromising and lifelong struggle on behalf of what was right and righteous in every social context, whether personal or global.

 

 

There is no assurance that this way of believing and acting will control every development in the world or even control the ultimate destiny of the human species. Humanity retains the freedom to fail, which could mean extinction in the foreseeable future.The happy ending of the Nicaragua case needs to be balanced against the prolonged and tragic ordeal of the Palestinian people for which there is still no end in sight. Beyond wins and losses, what I think should be clear is that unless many more of us become attentive to the horizons of spirituality and necessity the outlook for the human future is presently bleak. Father Miguel d’Escoto’s disavowal of the domain of the feasible is assuredly not the only way to serve humanity, but it is a most inspiring way, and points us all in a direction that is underrepresented in the operations of governments and other public institutions, not to mention during the speculative frenzies on Wall Street and the backrooms of hedge fund offices.

 

In my language, Father Miguel d’Escoto was one of the great citizen pilgrims of our time. His life was a continuous journey toward what St. Paul called ‘a better city, a heavenly city’ to manage and shape the totality of life on Planet Earth.