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On the Relevancy of the Security Council

Ivo Daalder and Robert Kagan (who are informal foreign policy advisors to presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama, respectfully) team up in a Washington Post op-ed to argue for the irrelevancy of the Security Council. The council, says Kagan and Daalder, is too beset by competing national interests to suffice as the ultimate arbiter for authorizing humanitarian interventions. Rather, a “concert of democracies” should take on that role.

Matthew Yglesias offers an excellent retort, “to survey the wreckage in Iraq, and conclude that despite the lessons seen there we can’t defer to the UN…on the grounds that the UN might sometimes say no is very weak tea.”

Agreed. I would also add that contrary to popular perception, the Security Council frequently authorizes foreign military intervention on humanitarian grounds. We just don’t hear about them. In spring 2006, for example, when rioting in East Timor forced some 100,000 people to flee their homes, the Security Council authorized the rapid deployment of Australian troops to restore order. Similarly, in May 2000 when a fragile peace deal in Sierra Leone was on the verge of collapse, the council authorized a deployment of British Special Forces to fight off spoilers.

The fact is, not authorizing military intervention is the exception to the rule at the Security Council. The debates over Iraq and Kosovo are the only two instances over the last eight years in which the Council failed to authorize the use of force when one or more of the P-5 democracies wanted it to. There are eighteen other examples to the contrary. (I would not lump Darfur in the “failure to act” category because no member state has recommended that the council permit a multi-national force to invade Sudan on behalf of the Darfuris. Also, the council first authorized a traditional peacekeeping mission there one year ago.)

Foreign troops are helping to keep the peace in the most forlorn stretches of the globe today precisely because the Security Council is willing and able to act. From 1998 to 2003 some four million people are thought to have perished as a result of war in the Congo. Thanks to Security Council’s deployment of some 18,000 troops there, the fighting has largely subsided.

My point is, the perception that that the Security Council is too overcome with competing national interests to permit humanitarian intervention is not in tune with reality.

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New Blogging Heads

Matthew Lee of Inner City Press and I hit the very small screen to debate and discuss the UN’s role in Iraq, the new Darfur resolution, the UN and new media and more. Enjoy!

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UN in Iraq

On August 10, the mandate of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) will officially expire. Before then, the United States and Great Britain want the Security Council to approve a new and expanded mandate that would carve out a greater political role for the UN in Iraq. Says Zalmay Khalilzad:

“In order to reduce the sources of violence, we believe that the United Nations can help Iraqis come to a national compact, come to an agreement on these big issues on which there are differences,” Khalilzad told reporters on Thursday.

He said that included provincial boundaries such as those around the disputed oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk. Kurds want Kirkuk included in their autonomous region as its capital, but other ethnic groups object.

Back in the fall of 2006, the Iraq Study Group foresaw a possible political and diplomatic role for the United Nations along these lines. But since organizing the so-called “purple finger elections in 2005,” UNAMI’s political work has been limited. Now, the UN is being asked to do what no other nation or group has yet to be able to accomplish: bring Iraq’s factions and Iraq’s neighbors together in an attempt to forge some sort of political compromise. Obviously, given the sorry state of things in Iraq, the UN may not even be able to do this. But at least, finally, member states are recognizing that UN-sponsored mediation could be the last best hope for finding a political solution to Iraq’s sectarian war.

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UN Ambassador Khalilzad on CSPAN

Yesterday, the new U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, sat down with CSPAN’s Washington Journal to discuss the U.S. relationship with the UN and the UN’s role in Iraq. Watch the video.

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The Treaty that has no Name

The otherwise estimable Barbara Slavin of USA Today writes an entire article about the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), without actually mentioning the treaty by name. Slavin explains how the White House sees “black gold” under the Arctic ice–and references a treaty that would firm up American oil companies’ claims to excavate–but she never explicitly states that it is the Law of the Seas Treaty, which sets rules the use of the world’s oceans, to which she is referring.

Nevertheless, the article is good. It shows how the Senate’s non-ratification of the treaty is undermining American interests. Oil and mineral extraction companies, for example, are wary about the legal firmament of their Arctic claims absent Senate ratification of the treaty. Slavin quotes John Bellinger III, the State Departments’ top lawyer, and Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen–both of whom urge the quick ratification of the treaty, which the US signed back in 1982. Though the piece does not mention it (this is a short USA Today article after all) the military also advocates for US ratification because doing so would help it more freely navigate the ocean.

But oil companies and the military are not the only advocates of US ratification of the Law of the Seas. Major environmental groups also see great value in the treaty, which contains provisions for protecting fish stocks and sets marine environmental standards. The treaty has the unanimous support of the Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

So what is stopping its passage? Slavin cites one senator in particular who opposes the treaty on strict ideological grounds. “There’s still a little sovereignty left in America,” says the Senator. “Let’s hold onto it.” With the kind of wide ranging support the Law of the Seas Treaty enjoys, however, that kind of atavistic opposition to the treaty cannot hold for too much longer.

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Security Council Vote on Darfur

As noted below, the Security Council approved a new resolution establishing the 26,000-strong United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur, UNAMID. Remember that acronym, because for the next many months the central tasks facing the international community on Darfur will center around: 1) actually raising the requisite troops for UNAMID; 2) providing UNAMID with a steady funding stream; 3) making sure Khartoum actually permits UNAMID troops to enter Darfur.

None of these challenges will be easy. The Secretary General cannot wave a magic wand and summon peacekeepers — rather, he must depend on the contributions of member states. Also, at $2 billion this mission will be the most expensive peacekeeping operation in the world — and cash is not exactly in surplus at UN Peacekeeping. Still, this resolution presents a major step forward. In every previous Security Council resolution on Darfur, China (which has extensive financial and business relations with Khartoum)had helped to water down the text, only to abstain in the end. But this time, China voted for, rather than abstained from the resolution.

To be sure, at China’s request the council dropped the threat of sanctions. But it kept intact harsh language under Chapter VII of the UN Charter–which permits the use of force in the event of Khartoum’s non-compliance. This is a big step forward in Chinese diplomacy toward Sudan.

The Security Council — for the very first time — is unified around sending peacekeepers to Darfur. With China finally on board, it will be much, much harder for Khartoum to resist signing a status of forces agreement with the UN.

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