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The UN's Mideast Struggles

Interviewee: William H. Luers, Adjunct Professor of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
February 14, 2012

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Russia's and China's veto of a draft UN Security Council resolution to end violence in Syria and their reluctance to impose more sanctions on Iran have raised questions over the ability of the UN Security Council to play an effective role in resolving these crises. This week, the UN General Assembly may take up a draft proposal by Saudi Arabia endorsing the Arab League's proposal for a political transition in Syria. A General Assembly resolution is non-binding and can still be vetoed by Russia and China at the UNSC, says William H. Luers, former president of the UN Association of the United States, but a vote at the UNGA will prompt broader global condemnation of Russia and China and "can bring together world support for action at the United Nations." On Iran, Luers says, the UN is not the best interlocutor, and Russia's role may be more beneficial in reaching an agreement on Iran's nuclear program.

Russia and China vetoed a resolution this month supported by the West and Arab countries that called for an end to the violence in Syria. Is this typical for the United Nations -- these kinds of stand-offs where nothing gets done?

No, things have gotten done over the years. But it depends on whether the five permanent members [the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China] agree on what that role should be. The issue of the Arab awakening and the changes that are taking place out there and how involved the United Nations should be challenges some of the basic premises going back to the beginning of the United Nations in 1945.

Historically, the Soviet Union--now Russia--and the Chinese have basically held that the United Nations should not authorize any action internal to any single country. This began as an attitude developed out of the general sense that the world was hostile to both governments. So as a matter of principle, they believe that the internal affairs of another country is not an issue for the United Nations to deal with. That has been a fundamental premise throughout the Soviet /Russian existence.

Can you give a recent example?

Yes. In the case of Chechnya, the Russians were extremely nervous during the initial phases of that war [1994-1996] that there'd be some sort of UN resolution that argued for a different policy or intervention. This is something they've been opposed to, and it was not a Cold War phenomenon. Ironically, interventionism was for the Soviet Union something they did in their part of the world [East Berlin, 1953, Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia, 1968] and they had no compunction at interventionism as long as they were doing it. And then the Soviet forces began to intervene in places in Africa in the 1970s.

Historically, the Soviet Union--now Russia--and the Chinese have basically held that the United Nations should not authorize any action internal to any single country.

Today, the challenge for the United Nations is to find out how to defend the basic principle of human rights--that governments have the responsibility to protect their people, a fundamental principle that was introduced into the United Nations as a result of the genocide in Rwanda [1994]. That was one of the guiding principles and legacies of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. He believed that the United Nations should take the responsibility to protect the citizens of a country if their own government will not do that. That was a fundamental and important shift in the general noninterference practices of the United Nations. And then who does the intervention? If you use the "responsibility to protect" principle in the African cases, where they've been used, or in the case of Libya [2011] or Syria right now, if the host government is unwilling or incapable of protecting its citizens, the United Nations therefore has the right and responsibility to protect those citizens.

But that principle is obviously not working now.

You are right. I don't think either China or Russia agree with that principle. It's not a principle of the charter; it's an interpretation of the charter made by Kofi Annan and supported by many countries in the world.

The Russians and Chinese have said that they were tricked into abstaining on the Libyan resolution calling for enforcement of a no-fly zone. It was interpreted by NATO as justification to use force against the Libyan government leading to the assassination of Muammar al-Qaddafi. Do you think that's what is motivating the Russians to prevent the Arab League efforts to get a resolution on Syria?

Yes. The no-fly zone question was the foot in the door for a NATO intervention that didn't involve any overt troops on the ground, but it did involve military attacks, which went far beyond the no-fly principle. And the Russians say we talked them into doing this, and we convinced them that this is what they should go along with, but then it turned into quasi-intervention, and they're opposed to that.

The Russians have close relations with the Syrian government. Is that a major factor too?

Absolutely. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was fairly clear about that when he talked about the role that Russia's played in protecting Syrian interests over the years. But the overriding factor is that they don't want to enshrine the principle of the world powers geting together and authorizing, under UN auspices, an intervention. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin doesn't feel good about that. If they have to run their country the way they feel that they have to run it, they don't somehow want an authorization to intervene approved from outside.

The Russians will never forget that at the outset of the the Korean War in 1950, they walked out of the Security Council, which permitted the approval of UN intervention in South Korea. It's going to be very difficult, with the Arab states hanging together in an unprecedented, remarkable way, for the Russians to continue to go against the Arab League's desires. It's quite surprising. Now, whether they come under pressure as things get worse and worse, I don't know. This is a matter of principle for them. And self-protection.

The General Assembly may take up a draft resolution introduced by Saudi Arabia calling for a joint peacekeeping operation of the UN and Arab League in Syria. Do you think it'll have any impact once it's passed?

[T]he Russians have begun to seek a sort of middle ground and they have been working with the Iranians on a step-by-step approach trying to resolve the issue.

It will bring about even broader global condemnation of the Russians and the Chinese, because there'll be a lot of support in the General Assembly for it. It's a uniting for peace idea, that the General Assembly can bring together world support for action at the United Nations. The practical fact is that if the Russians still want to veto in the Security Council, nothing can happen.

The question is: How do you go about working with the Russians on this? I don't know to what degree we're working with the Russians to find ways to find agreement on some steps the Security Council might take, which will increase the pressure on Assad. My suspicion is, the way things are going, he's not going to leave on his own; he is going to be there until he's either overthrown by his own people or he's taken out by some kind of opposition force, supported from the outside.

How has this worked in the case of Iran, where you have these occasional negotiations between the Security Council permanent five plus Germany (P5+1) and Iran?

The Russians and the Chinese have gone along with the pressure the Western countries have applied on the assumption that if you increase the pressure, eventually the Iranians will accede to the resolutions of the UN Security Council and the requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA]--that they suspend their uranium enrichment, and they open up and solve the problems that Iran has with the IAEA.

I doubt very much whether the Russians will approve of any more sanctions. They've been opposed to it, they've been brought along reluctantly, and the Chinese are the same way. What's interesting is that the Russians have begun to seek a sort of middle ground, and they have been working with the Iranians on a step-by-step approach trying to resolve the issue. And my understanding is that the United States has taken some interest in the Russian role. The Russians are trying to find an arrangement that could be workable, that they could then take to the P5+1 and have a joint, prepared presentation to the Iranians. If they can get it together, which will be a more interesting and far-reaching proposal on Iran's nuclear program than we've seen before, it could present opportunities for a change in dynamics in this difficult situation.

The United Nations has played an interesting role in the Iran dialogue, a sort of yin-yang role in the sense that the IAEA, of which Iran is an original signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, continues to have good, not perfect access, not desired access to the Iranian muclear program. They regularly monitor it; they have inspection visits. Most of the information we have, we get from the IAEA. That's not mentioned very often. The negative side of the equation comes from the UN Security Council, which is bringing pressure on the Iranians to do what the IAEA wants of them.

You and former senior official Thomas R. Pickering wrote an op-ed (NYT), calling for the United States to take an initiative to open a direct dialogue with Iran. Have you received much feedback on that from the government?

We've talked to a lot of people; they've been very receptive. The basic concern they have is that the Iranians have not been very responsive to President Obama's initiatives. There are a number of people in the U.S. government who know something about Iran, who would always be interested in an opportunity for a dialogue with Iran. The P5+1 is an interesting vehicle, but not probably the best way to go about trying to get an agreement with Iran. And there are a lot of reasons for that.

My own sense is that the United States, if it were prepared to do it, could probably be a lead negotiator for the P5+1. Yet the Iranians believe profoundly that we're not the best interlocutors right now, because they believe we're interested only in changing their regime. And much of the things we're doing seem to support their belief in that. Russia is playing that intermediary role, and Iran has always had a conflicted and confusing relationship with the Russians.

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