What universal standards does the UN stand for? Human rights, justice, peace… and high quality tailoring. That at least is the message from the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations’ Michael Heller Chu, an expert on civilian protection now also modeling suits for Bergdorf Goodman. Has multilateralism ever looked sharper?
I have an especially dour article over at World Politics Review about the state of crisis diplomacy today, which kicks off like this:
Since the conflict in South Sudan escalated in December, well-meaning governments and United Nations officials have repeatedly argued that only a political solution can end the fighting. “There is no military solution,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power told CNN on Christmas Eve. But the South Sudanese government does not seem entirely convinced. Over the past week it has ratcheted up its offensives against rebel-held areas, recapturing the economically important town of Bentiu. Bor, another major center in rebel hands, has also been under attack. The government is still in peace talks with rebel envoys, but it is evidently intent on negotiating from the strongest possible military position.
South Sudanese President Salva Kiir has been bolstered by air support and ground troops from Uganda, as well as political signals of support from his old enemies in Sudan. If Kiir needs further encouragement, he needs only to think of other governments that have been told to find a “political solution” to internal conflicts. From Sri Lanka to Darfur and Syria, leaders who have ignored this advice have managed to fight on in the face of international revulsion. Western powers and the U.N. appear willing—or obliged—to put aside bargaining with these leaders, tragically affirming the continued political value of brute force.
You can read the rest of my argument here. But perhaps I am just being a curmudgeon, because it seems that peacemakers everywhere are having a whale of a time. The Russian and U.S. delegations meeting to discuss Syria have been up to high jinks:
For some watchers of international diplomacy, the somber road to Syrian peace was overrun Monday by potatoes and furry pink hats.
A swapping of delegation gifts between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov served as a distraction from predictions of elusive success in Syria. The usually stern-faced Lavrov came to the meeting armed with at least two ushankas, a traditional Russian fur hat with earflaps that tie to the top of the hat. Both hats went to women on Kerry’s press staff — including a bubblegum-pink one for State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
The more bizarre bout of diplomacy came over a pair of Idaho potatoes. After pictures of Kerry handing Lavrov the tubers during talks Monday morning surfaced on the Web, reporters pressed both leaders for an explanation hours later. Kerry quickly sought to disavow any deep diplomatic meaning from the spuds, explaining that he was in Idaho over the holidays when he and Lavrov spoke by phone. The Russian, it seemed, associated Idaho with potatoes. ”He told me he’s not going to make vodka. He’s going to eat them,” Kerry said of Lavrov, who was next to him at an otherwise grim news conference on militant threats to humanitarian aid for Syria.
How could anyone feel grim after such hilarities? Still, some people just can’t take a joke, like the South Sudanese negotiators who are miffed about holding talks… in a nightclub.
A shift in the venue for talks aimed at brokering a ceasefire in South Sudan has left some delegates bemused. The government and rebel teams have moved to the dance floor of a top nightclub in an Addis Ababa hotel.
The Gaslight club was selected after the room in the Sheraton hotel the teams had been using was booked by a Japanese delegation. Sources close to the talks said some delegates were unhappy with the poor lighting and excess noise.
Maybe, just maybe, these things could be handled without spuds and disco balls?
Academics and policy wonks are mainly mild-mannered folk. I know that I am. But occasionally it’s fun to cut loose and have a really nasty debate with an intellectual opponent. The New Internationalist gave Phil Leech of Liverpool University and me a chance to do just that by asking us to conduct a debate on abolishing the Security Council for their latest issue. Our debate quickly and entertainingly turned into the IR academic equivalent of professional wresting.
Phil started off by stating the case for the Council’s abolition:
The UN Security Council (UNSC), in its current form, represents an antiquated approach to international politics.
The original intention behind its creation was for it to be an executive arm of the UN, enforcing the will of the international community against rogue states, ensuring compliance with international norms and promoting world peace. However, in reality the Security Council has proven to be Western-centric, overly concerned with the rights and interests of states – rather than that of individual human beings or human societies – and incompatible with the very urgent need to address many of the key issues and challenges of the contemporary world.
I actually agree with a lot of that, but I wasn’t going to admit defeat so easily..
You are right: the Security Council, like life, is not fair. But it was never meant to be.
Time for me to ramp up the battle!
Let’s pursue your proposal: scrap the Council. What, if anything, would you replace it with? A forum for NGOs? Oxfam and Amnesty International would have more humane and edifying debates than China and the US, but what could they deliver? Perhaps we should select 15 entirely random individuals from around the world to debate war and peace in place of the Council’s current members.
Phil strikes back:
You seem to accept both the inherent unfairness of the system and its inefficacies –which, you concede, constitute the politicization of international norms, sometimes at great human cost – merely because of a poverty of creative thought. I am unconvinced.
Ouch! Me again:
I may not be thinking very creatively, but your alternative adds up to a couple of slogans.
If you want to find out what Phil had to say to that, read through the full multilateral wrestling-match here. Rest assured that we made up afterwards!
The London Review of Books has a nice piece by Lynn Visson, a former UN translator, on the secrets of her trade:
The most important language in most international organisations has no name: it is the institution’s own bureaucratese, its linguistic Esperanto. We never do something, we implement. We don’t repeat, we reiterate and underscore. We are never happy, we are gratified or satisfied. You are never doing a great job: you are performing your duties in the outstanding manner in which you have always discharged them. There is not heft or embezzlement, but rather failure to ensure compliance with proper accounting and auditing procedures in the handling of financial resources. This is a language the interpreter must master very early on.
But sometimes there are surprises…
Some colleagues play tic-tac-toe with each other out of sheer boredom. Delegates too sometimes get bored. Instead of beginning his speech with the usual ‘Thank you, Mr Chairman,’ a Russian delegate for whom I was interpreting launched in with ‘O my lost youth, my lost youth,’ and proceeded to reminisce about the mosaics in the main cathedral in Sofia, including one figure in the cupola that reminded him, as he put it, of ‘Christ in a space suit’. Several delegates turned towards the English booth with puzzled looks, undoubtedly wondering if I had gone mad.
…and sometimes things go horribly wrong:
One unfortunate freelancer announced to an entire room that a Spanish speech he had just finished translating was ‘the stupidest and most boring speech I have ever interpreted in my entire life’. I doubt that he was ever hired again.
Dear reader, there is nothing make fun of here. Nothing.
World Post Day is celebrated each year on 9 October, the anniversary of the establishment of the Universal Postal Union (UPU) in 1874 in the Swiss capital, Berne. It was declared World Post Day by the UPU Congress held in Tokyo, Japan, in 1969.
The purpose of World Post Day is to create awareness of the role of the postal sector in people’s and businesses’ everyday lives and its contribution to the social and economic development of countries. The celebration encourages member countries to undertake programme activities aimed at generating a broader awareness of their Post’s role and activities among the public and media on a national scale.
OK, a small smile may be permissible…
Here’s more exciting Syrian news from the Security Council after last week’s chemical weapons resolution:
The president of the U.N. Security Council said Monday that many members are pressing to follow up on last week’s resolution to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons with a demand that the government allow immediate access for desperately needed humanitarian aid.
Australian Ambassador and council president Gary Quinlan said a draft Security Council statement calls for delivering access in “the most effective ways, including across conflict lines and, where appropriate, across borders from neighboring countries …” if necessary to bypass meddling from President Bashar Assad’s regime in Damascus.
And here is the really striking news:
Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told The Associated Press that Russia approved of the draft statement on humanitarian aid as well.
Now why on earth would Russia support such a proposal now? This map suggests one answer:
As the map shows, a majority of border towns and cities are held by rebels or Kurds. So if the UN tries to open up humanitarian corridors from other countries, the burden will be on the rebels to safeguard them. There are notable exceptions, like Qusayr. But Russia can support this initiative safe in the knowledge that (1) it reflects facts on the ground and (2) it may create more headaches for the rebels than for Assad. Will rebels let aid into government-held areas?