Richard Gowan

About Richard Gowan

Richard Gowan coordinates the International Security Institutions program at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He is also the UN Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and an associate of the Foreign Policy Center (London).

The UN’s struggle for moral authority

I have a 3,000 word essay in Aeon, the online magazine of ideas, on the United Nations and morality. Here’s the opening…

‘We will integrate human rights into the life cycle of all staff.’ This phrase, with its strange mix of bureaucratic and moral ambitions, might sound like a piece of Orwellian doublespeak. In fact it is a sincere statement from a policy paper circulated among senior United Nations staff this summer on the need to renew the organisation’s ‘vision’ in the face of massive human rights violations. UN officials have been despondent over their failure to halt the Syrian war and the organisation’s performance in persistent trouble-spots such as Darfur, so the soul-searching is timely. But will it make any difference?

You can find the answer to that question, and the full article, here.

Last of the White Russians

File:Wrangel Peter.jpg

Occasionally an item of news reminds us of how transient most great political dramas are, and how quickly major crises come and go.  This is rather healthy: it puts us on notice that most of the issues we care about very deeply will be forgotten fairly soon too.  This is certainly the effect of a compelling obituary notice in the New York Times (emphasis added):

BASILEVSKY–Nathalie (nee Wrangel), 99, of Cos Cob, CT. Beloved mother of Peter A. Basilevsky and the late Helen A. Basilevsky, grandmother of Alexis P. Basilevsky and Katharine H. Deering and two great-grandchildren. She died peacefully on August 9, 2013. She had a big heart, a sharp intellect and will be missed by all who knew her. Mrs. Basilevsky, born in 1913 in St. Petersburg, Russia, was the last surviving child of Lt. Gen. Baron Peter N. Wrangel and Olga M. Wrangel. She was predeceased by her husband Alexis G. Basilevsky, sister Helene Meyendorff and her brothers Peter and Alexis Wrangel. Baron Wrangel was the last Commander in Chief of the White Army in the Russian Civil War and who, after a long and valiant struggle despite his army being woefully outmanned and undersupplied, engineered the seaborne evacuation of approximately 150,000 soldiers and civilians, including 7,000 children, from the Crimea in November 1920 in the face of overwhelming advancing Bolshevik forces.

It’s worth remembering that the Russian Civil War was a close-run thing. If the White Army had been better-manned and better-supplied, we might be mourning the loss of a rare human link to a late, great White Russian (pictured above).  And “Stalin” would mean nothing to us.

Kissinger: when you don’t have a foreign policy, talk about development!

Micah Zenko of CFR has just blogged this transcript of a 1975 telephone call between Henry Kissinger and his long-time aide Winston Lord on the knotty problem of what to say about Africa in an upcoming speech:

KISSINGER: Are you redoing the African thing?

WINSTON LORD: Yes. We had versions which is in the front office and we are redoing it some more. You can look at what you have [or?] wait for what is in the typewriter now. It will not be tremendously different. We gave you a draft about two days which was bounced back.

K: It was not much.

L: We don’t have much of a policy.

K: What would be a policy?

L: That it is, I think, it is sober, restrained…

K: I don’t mind giving them what our intentions are. It is not always possible to do a hell of a lot.

L: Right. It is our lowest priority, but it cannot say that. But it is a fact of life.

K: We can say something about forthcoming aspirations.

L: You mean for development.

K: Right.

According to the full transcript, Kissinger goes on to say: “See if you can give it a little more lift without promising them much more.”  Of course, no policy-maker would ever be so cynical about development policy these days…

No apologies: the President of the UN General Assembly rocks with Bon Jovi

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Vuk Jeremic, a former foreign minister of Serbia, is coming to the end of a year in the very important job of President of the UN General Assembly.  His tenure has been anything but dull.  He organized a concert which featured a Serbian choir singing a song “associated with massacres carried out in the 1990s against civilians who were under the protection of United Nations peacekeepers.”  He convened a thematic debate on criminal justice that the U.S. claimed was “trying to discredit the war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.”  And last week… he went to a Bon Jovi concert. Continue reading

Annan on Syria: “we left it too late” to invade

Anna-Assad

It’s six months since Kofi Annan stepped down as UN-Arab League envoy for Syria.  Does he have second thoughts about his efforts to mediate an end to the civil war last year?  He said something odd this week:

“I don’t see a military intervention in Syria. We left it too late. I’m not sure it would not do more harm,” he told the Graduate Institute in Geneva on Tuesday night.  “Further militarisation of the conflict, I’m not sure that is the way to help the Syrian people. They are waiting for the killing to stop. You find some people far away from Syria are the ones very keen for putting in weapons.”

Annan went on to say that he still thinks a political solution is the only viable option, although he’s pessimistic about the chances of achieving this.  Still, his “we left it too late” line is striking.  Does he think that a military intervention might have been feasible a year ago, when he was trying to secure a ceasefire?

Earlier this month, I wrote a commentary for Stability – an up-and-coming online journal devoted to conflict issues – about Annan’s early days as Syria envoy in February and March 2012.  I argue that the chances of a military intervention were always low, but there was “prevailing uncertainty about how the intentions of major powers towards Syria might evolve as the crisis continued.”

Russia appeared genuinely convinced that the West might use force. And while the Assad government responded to the splits in the Security Council by escalating military operations, it could not be certain that its Arab and Western opponents might not take a more aggressive line. This doubt was a potential point of leverage for Annan. Should he take advantage of the uncertainties over external powers’ intentions or try to clarify them?

How did the former UN Secretary-General handle this dilemma?

After his appointment Annan pulled together a team of veteran UN officials and set up office in Geneva. While his team was highly loyal to him, divisions emerged over what strategy he should adopt. A relatively hawkish faction believed that Annan could use the swirling uncertainty to persuade Assad that his position was unsustainable. A more dovish group felt that it was necessary to reassure both Assad and the Russians that regime change was not imminent, creating a framework for talks. The doves were convinced that the chances of an outside intervention were still infinitesimally low and that it was essential to disabuse those opposition forces hoping for a repeat of the Libyan episode. Meanwhile UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has mixed relations with Annan, was pressing hard for an early ceasefire.

Annan visited Damascus on 10 March 2012 and held difficult talks with Assad, who declared he would not talk to “terrorists”. Although declaring himself disappointed by this encounter, Annan opted to follow the dovish route. His six-point plan was an effort to create a climate of confidence both outside and inside Syria. By tabling proposals that all the members of the Security Council could approve, he eased tensions between Russia and the West. By getting these powers to sign on to a deliberately non-threatening text, he reassured Assad that the chances of an intervention were low.

So if “we left it too late” to intervene, Annan was partially responsible for the delay.  You can read the rest of the Stability article – including some thoughts on what Annan could have done differently – here.

No booze, no drugs, no fun: the UN today

Ban-Obama

This is your last drink for tonight, understand?

This was the week the UN stopped being fun.  To start with, the US is trying to stop diplomats turning up at budget debates drunk:

The U.S. ambassador for management and reform at the United Nations, Joseph Torsella, scolded his U.N. colleagues today for excessive drinking during delicate budget negotiations.

The unusual censure reflected lingering American frustration with its counterparts’ conduct in budget negotiations in December, which one U.N.-based diplomat compared to a circus.

“There has always been a good and responsible tradition of a bit of alcohol improving a negotiation, but we’re not talking about a delegate having a nip at the bar,” said the diplomat who recalled one G-77 diplomat fell sick from too much alcohol.

As the United States sought to rally support for a proposal to freeze U.N. staff pay in December, it found that key negotiating partners, particularly delegates from the Group of 77 developing countries, were not showing up for meetings. When they did arrive, they had often been drinking.

“As for the conduct of negotiations, we make the modest proposal that the negotiation rooms should in future be an inebriation-free zone,” Torsella said in a meeting of the U.N. membership’s budget committee, known as the Fifth Committee. “While my government is truly grateful for the strategic opportunities presented by some recent practices, lets save the champagne for toasting the successful end of the session, and do some credit to the Fifth Committee’s reputation in the process.”

Meanwhile UN officials have been going after weed

A United Nations-based drug agency urged the United States government on Tuesday to challenge the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in Colorado and Washington, saying the state laws violate international drug treaties.

The International Narcotics Control Board made its appeal in an annual drug report. It called on Washington, D.C., to act to “ensure full compliance with the international drug control treaties on its entire territory.”

Boring!!!