All posts by Tom Pegram

I am a Senior Lecturer in Global Governance and Deputy Director of the Global Governance Institute at the Department of Political Science/School of Public Policy, University College London.

The US on the Palestinian Statehood Bid: Weighing the Costs

Reflecting on the controversy surrounding the Palestinian bid for statehood, Richard Falk neatly subverts the opening words of the UN Charter, “we the people,” as having always surrendered to “we the governments,” and, in the modern era of American empire, “we the hegemon.”

This may well be true. The UN Security Council (UNSC), in particular, is viewed in Washington as a vehicle for hegemonic ambitions—to be indulged when it serves its purpose and vetoed and sidelined when it does not. Unfolding events at the UNSC, reportedly due to vote on the Palestinian resolution on November 11 but now postponed perhaps indefinitely, do much to affirm this assessment.

But what are those hegemonic ambitions? Prominent moderate and more conservative thinkers are struggling to answer this central question, with experts of diverse political stripes expressing concern at the political fallout of Israeli and US belligerence towards the Palestinian bid. As Washington Post columnist Thomas Friedman reports: “I’ve never been more worried about Israel’s future…”

The difficulties encountered by the Obama administration in pursuing a policy deeply at odds with much of the international community in the “Global South,” and the possible costs to the US and its regional allies and clients—both foreseeable and unintended—of opposing the largely symbolic Palestinian bid at the UN, certainly raise the question: what is the payoff?

The default position of many commentators is to point to the inordinate influence of the Israeli lobby on domestic politics in Washington, especially as the 2012 election year approaches. This would appear to be borne out in a recent opinion poll, which suggests that a majority of Americans actually support the Palestinian resolution. But is the Israeli lobby really powerful enough to “force the [Obama] administration to defend Israel at the U.N., even when it knows Israel is pursuing policies not in its own interest or America’s”?

Reflecting growing alarm in Washington, US officials have embarked—some would say rather belatedly—on a concerted push to derail or pre-empt a vote at the Security Council, without success. Diplomatic entreaties in recent weeks have given way to last ditch efforts at arm-twisting as momentum has built around the Palestinian bid. However, the US has struggled to get a grip on the situation.

The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, has signaled that there is “no greater threat” to US support and funding of the UN than the prospect of Palestinian statehood being endorsed by member states. UNESCO has become the first test of US resolve, with the organization voting to recognize Palestinian statehood (a vote not subject to US veto).

Reaction has been swift and decisive. The US withheld $50 million in funds from the organization, sending a clear signal to the broader UN community. For its part, Israel has responded to the UNESCO vote by speeding up settlement expansion in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Neither action is likely to be looked on kindly by allies or adversaries; indeed, the White House and the British Foreign Secretary have expressed deep disappointment in the Israeli response. This provocative move by Israel further undermines the already tenuous credibility of US insistence on a negotiated settlement.

This round of retribution follows the earlier punitive decision by the US Congress to freeze $200 million of economic aid destined for the Palestinian Authority. That move drew criticism from across the political divide, including from Hilary Clinton, who voiced concern that it will provide an opening for radical groups to fill the vacuum.

Unable to deter the Abbas administration, US attention has turned to the Security Council. With the majority of UNSC members having signaled their voting intentions, diplomatic maneuvering has focused on those few remaining undeclared members, Gabon, Nigeria, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, in an attempt to secure the nine votes necessary to avoid a US veto.

At the time of writing, this approach appears to have worked. With Britain and France declaring their intention to abstain – despite the latter voting in favor of Palestinian statehood at UNESCO – and Colombia, Portugal, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Germany expected to oppose the resolution, the Palestinian leadership can count on only eight votes in support (China, Russia, Brazil, India, South Africa, Lebanon, Nigeria and Gabon).

The costs to the US of checking Palestinian ambitions may be significant, in so far as doing so further diminishes US influence in the Middle East. US foreign policy commentators have singled out repression of Shia minorities by US client regimes and the enduring plight of the Palestinians as the two key issue areas undermining US efforts to win hearts and minds in the region.

Only last year, Barack Obama declared his ambition that a negotiated agreement “will lead to a new member of the United Nations.” However, the apparent inability of the US to halt Israeli settlement activity, combined with the revelations of the Palestinian papers, which documented Israel’s rejection of historic concessions by the Palestinians, have left many observers deeply disillusioned about the prospects for peace through negotiation and the sincerity of Obama’s rhetoric.

Stalwart US allies in the region have counseled the US to support the Palestinian bid. Saudi Arabia has declared that its “special relationship” with the US risks becoming “toxic.” Recent reports of Saudi Arabian nuclear ambitions indicate the regime’s growing sense of vulnerability. Similarly, Jordan has expressed deep concern at the prospect of the Palestinians being “really short-handed on this issue.” Turkey has also signaled its intention to defy US entreaties.

In the background lies the bigger uncertainty for the US regarding the growing influence of Iran, its alleged development of nuclear weapons, and the continuing fallout of the Iraq invasion. The refusal by the Iraqi government to allow continuation of a US military presence (under current immunity laws) after 2011 was widely reported as a major diplomatic and military rebuff.

Against this backdrop of deep uncertainty, can the US afford to further alienate the Arab world by blocking the Palestinian bid for statehood? Are the hands of the hegemon tied by the Israeli lobby? No doubt, many of those who argue that the preponderance of the Israeli lobby has forced the hand of the US are sincere.

However, to sound a more skeptical note, it is also likely that US policymakers have conducted their own risk assessment and concluded that the costs are either acceptable or largely immaterial given the country’s unrivaled hegemonic status. Some decision-makers may argue that opposition to the Palestinian bid actually serves US interests by signaling cast-iron support for Israel.

Israel is a de facto US aircraft carrier in the region—an important asset for the projection of US power by proxy. However, as part of this arrangement, Israel’s dependence on US patronage is absolute, which raises the question: is Israel really in a position to dictate terms to Washington on the Palestinian bid, or on any other issue for that matter?

As for US allies in the region, Washington may view their continued allegiance over the long term as uncertain in any case. Strongly worded support by Clinton and others for democratization in the region is likely to jeopardize relations with autocratic allies, such as the Saudi royal family.

Despite arguments to the contrary, this reading of events suggests that it is still, very much, a case of “we the hegemon”.

Published here: http://www.du.edu/korbel/hrhw/roundtable/2011/panel-c/11-2011/pegram-2011b.html 

Human Rights as a Vocation: A Portrait of Ana María Romero de Campero

“With Ana María Romero dies a piece of the history of Bolivia. This woman is who built our democracy.”

These words of remembrance by the Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera marked the death of Ana María Romero de Campero on October 25, 2010, at the age of 69, the first woman President of the Senate of the newly formed Bolivian Plurinational Assembly. In the days that followed, his sentiments were echoed not only by many of the urban elite and professionals of La Paz but also, more unusually, by civil society activists and ordinary Bolivians throughout the country.

Largely unknown outside Bolivia, Ana María Romero dedicated her life to promoting democracy and human rights with particular regard for those most disadvantaged in Bolivian society. Her work reached its apogee with her appointment as the first Defensora del Pueblo in 1998, an office broadly translating its intent into English as “Human Rights Ombudswoman.” The high public standing of the Defensor del Pueblo in Bolivian society today is largely attributable to her forceful leadership as Defensora until 2003. In turn, Ana María used her considerable public popularity as the former Defensora del Pueblo to continue to play a constructive role amidst the turbulent and divisive events that followed Morales’ rise to power in 2005. The recounting of Ana María’s story serves also to reflect, albeit partially, upon the past, the present and the future of Bolivia’s struggle towards viable democracy.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ana María at her office in July 2008 as part of my research into the human rights impact of Defensorías del Pueblo in Latin America. Intriguingly, little attention had been paid to these new state human rights institutions although they seemed to be held in high public esteem, in contrast to their much-maligned political systems. Bolivia was no exception. Over the course of a three-hour discussion, Ana María provided valuable insight into the grand schemes and operational minutiae that informed her term as Defensora, as well as the philosophical basis for her actions. A growing body of anecdotal evidence suggested that the Bolivian Defensoría—alongside its Colombian, Guatemalan and Peruvian counterparts—was, and remains, widely regarded as a credible, impactful institution in a sea of dysfunctionality. In the course of my five-year investigation, a recurring predictor of success came into focus: the exceptional leadership qualities of individual Defensores, including Jaime Córdoba Triviño (Colombia), Ramiro de León Carpio (Guatemala), Jorge Santistevan de Noriega (Peru) and Ana María herself.

Ana María Romero Campero was born into a deeply political household in La Paz on June 29, 1941. Her father, Gonzalo Romero, was a leading figure on the left of the Bolivian Socialist Falange (FSB) party, and at the center of the turbulent revolutionary politics of the era. His nationalist revolutionary ideology was likely to have fostered Ana María’s outlook on Bolivian society, as she pursued her own political formation, honing her abilities as a journalist to convey a complex Bolivian reality to the world. A noted irreverence towards the powerful, as well as a gift for mediating conflict, provided early indications of her future vocation.

During decades of political strife, Ana María became a figurehead for independent journalism and a rare authoritative woman’s voice on the national stage. The first woman to preside over the Journalists Association, she also founded and led the Circle of Women Journalists and became President of the National Press Association. In a Bolivian world of male hierarchy, such a trajectory was a significant achievement and perhaps inevitably marked her out for political office. Initially, however, her experience with official politics would be fleeting. In 1979, Ana María was appointed Minister for Information during the short-lived democratic administration of Wálter Guevara Arce that was toppled by one of the many military coups that plagued Bolivia throughout the twentieth century, led on this occasion by General Alberto Natush Busch. Ana María was instrumental in tipping off the international community about the coup with the aid of her personal telex machine.

In the late 1990s, Ana María Romero truly found her voice on the national stage. According to the Bolivian journalist and historian Rolando Carvajal, her influence on some of the most important social and political events of recent years is perhaps exceeded only by Evo Morales. Crucial to this narrative is the almost unanimous congressional endorsement of Ana María as the first Bolivian Defensora in 1998, during the government of erstwhile dictator, later democratically elected, President Hugo Banzer. A novel office, autonomous yet part of the state, and with an explicit human rights promotion and protection mandate, the Defensor del Pueblo appointment provided Ana María with a powerful bullhorn with which to advocate for change. She proved an adept political operator, capable of navigating in an increasingly polarized social reality and a faltering political system. Above all, she had the virtue of understanding that her role as Defensor was to represent a “Magistratura de la Persuasión [Magistrate of Persuasion].” The message that all Bolivians had rights—irrespective of political affiliation or ethnicity—and that the state had a responsibility towards those most vulnerable and marginalized within society had a powerful resonance. Ana María rapidly positioned herself and the institution as a voice for the voiceless.

The Defensor del Pueblo set about reframing human rights as an objective standard apart from the political fray of competing ideologies. Campaigns to redress widely perceived injustices (such as the denial of kidney transplants, reform of the social security code and compulsory military conscription) contributed to her popular appeal as a determined human rights defender in the face of formidable opposition. Against vocal objections by the Bolivian government and U.S. embassy, Ana María intervened in a violent conflict between cocaleros and security forces in 1998 in El Chapare. Her efforts—alongside those of local civil society and church—to generate a space for dialogue are widely credited as having achieved an ultimately peaceful resolution to the impasse.

Ana María was a familiar mediating presence in many other social and political conflicts in the late 1990s and 2000s. During the 2000 Cochabamba Water War, the Defensora actively sought to hold the water utility company and regulators to account. She also successfully petitioned the Constitutional Tribunal to strike down the Banzer government’s state of emergency decree, much to the chagrin of government ministers.

Ana María’s term as Defensora expired in September 2003, and in the midst of a highly contested reelection bid, the Gas War saw countrywide protests against the selling of Bolivia’s natural gas reserves to the United States through Chilean territory. On October 11, 2003, on the order of Defense Minister Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, military forces shot to death an estimated 67 people in El Alto and left hundreds more wounded. In response, Ana María began a hunger strike in protest against the actions of the Sánchez de Lozada government, quickly joined by hundreds of human rights activists. This controversial action was regarded even by some of her family as a step too far. Nevertheless, Ana María felt compelled by a “moral duty” to do something. In our interview, she commented simply, “I suppose this action was coherent with my life and, in particular, my work as Defensora.” It proved effective. Then-sitting Vice President Carlos Mesa remarks in his 2008 memoir, Presidencia Sitiada: Memorias de mi Gobierno, that the action by the Defensora “resulted in the destruction of the government’s support base within the middle classes,” almost certainly contributing to the fall of the government days later.

These events would eventually redefine Bolivian politics, precipitating a seismic shift in the political landscape with the election of Evo Morales in 2005. In the wake of Black October, Ana María did not seek reelection as Defensora. Nevertheless, her legacy as a human rights advocate, as well as the prestige she brought to the office, has contributed to the appointment of credible individuals as successors. Both Waldo Albarracín (2003-2008) and the current Defensor Rolando Villena are highly respected within the human rights community. The election of Morales and ascendance of the traditionally excluded marks a decisive break from the old political model. This inverting of the old order ushered in a period that has seen high levels of polarization and bitter social conflict along political, regional and ethnic lines. Such a challenging new context has also demanded adaptation and reinvention on the part of democratic and rights-oriented stakeholders.

The former Defensora turned her energy towards conflict resolution, negotiation and dialogue, resulting in the 2005 creation of the NGO Fundación UNIR.

While generally supportive of the reforms undertaken by the Morales government, Ana María remained an independent- minded and constructive critic of the administration. Notwithstanding intermittent disagreements, her relationship with Evo Morales remained one of mutual respect and even admiration. An invitation in October 2009 for her to stand as the first MAS Senator for La Paz in the newly formed Plurinational Assembly was widely viewed as Morales’ attempt to broaden the appeal of the MAS to the urban middle classes and intellectual elites. After some deliberation, Ana María accepted the invitation and publicly endorsed the general direction of Morales’ political project. Elected Senator for La Paz in December 2009, she was unanimously appointed President of the Senate shortly thereafter. Illness denied Ana María the chance of fully realizing the role of “mediator-in-chief ” within the Senate. Nevertheless, her election to one of the highest offices in the land was a fitting tribute to a life lived in defense of ordinary Bolivians’ human and democratic rights.

Originally published: http://www.drclas.harvard.edu/publications/revistaonline/fall-2011/human-rights-vocation

The UN Security Council on Syria: Radical Change or Continuity?

The Presidential Statement issued by the UN Security Council on August 3 condemning the widespread violation of human rights by Syrian authorities was hailed by some as signaling the collapse of the pro-Syrian “defiance coalition”

This “defiance coalition,” comprised of the so-called “BRICs” (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) along with Lebanon, did indeed relent, begrudgingly, to growing international pressure for action on Syria. However, whether a statement containing little actionable contentsignals the crumbling of defiance rather than a diplomatic maneuver as calculations are recalibrated in light of developments is another matter.

Recent history offers little comfort to those who suggest that there has been a radical change in stance among the countries on the Security Council regarding their responsibilities when faced with humanitarian crisis. Indeed, the defiance of the BRICs towards tougher action on Syria is as much, if not more, driven by “anti-interventionist” principles as narrow “pro-Assad regime” interests.

Despite endorsement by the UN General Assembly of the idea of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in 2005, the Security Council—the sole UN body with the authority to sanction enforcement action—has proven deeply reluctant to combine words with action.

In particular, the more overtly coercive dimensions of human rights enforcement contained in R2P—be they military or non-military—are disputed by its detractors as running counter to the norm of sovereign equality affirmed by the UN Charter.

Recognition of certain fundamental principles enshrined in R2P—that sovereign states have a duty to prevent atrocity crimes—does not diminish the hard realpolitik of Security Council debate, which invariably subjugates such principles to the national interest of individual countries. States remain to be convinced that human rights crimes constitute a threat to their own or the collective’s security.

The Security Council’s hesitant response to the unfolding Rwandan genocide in 1994 is widely documented. Chinese and Russian opposition to the use of force in the Kosovo conflict led to the de facto outsourcing of responsibility to NATO, the legality and legitimacy of which remains disputed. The extra-legal Iraq intervention in 2003 has been widely perceived as an abuse of humanitarian justification for war.

In the post-Iraq era, difficulty in reaching consensus on the appropriate response to massive violations of human rights has confounded demands for decisive Security Council action on Darfur. Claims that Sudan had manifestly failed in its responsibility to protect were repeatedly rejected by the BRICs.

The failure of the Security Council to compel the Sudanese government to cease its genocidal policies led to an estimated 300,000 civilian deaths and is attributable in large part to the principled and self-interested objections of anti-interventionists.

Responsibility to protect may now be a mainstay in the language of diplomacy. However, different interpretations of scope and threshold continue to dog its operationalization—especially with regard to the use of the UN’s coercive apparatus.

Potential R2P crises in Kenya (2007), Sri Lanka (2009), Burma/Myanmar (2010), Guinea (2010), Kyrgyzstan (2010), Ivory Coast (2011), South Sudan (2010), and Congo (2011) have arguably served to muddy the waters further, resulting in little concrete action. Russia appropriated the language of R2P to justify its unilateral intervention in South Ossetia in 2008.

It is against this backdrop of post-Rwanda inaction and the ill-fated hope of “never again” that the Libyan intervention has been seized upon as a possible game changer. The NATO action in Libya, under the auspices of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, has been hailed by some R2P advocates as a vindication of “military humanitarianism.”

However, with few exceptions, the action has provoked predictably strong opposition from the global south, with China, Russia, the African Union, and the Arab League (after initial endorsement of a no-fly zone) accusing NATO of acting outside the boundaries of the resolution and using humanitarianism as a pretext to engineer regime change.

What are the spillover effects on the Syrian situation? It is notable that the BRICs along with Germany abstained from the vote on Resolution 1973. Given this precedent, coupled with their professed alarm and surprise at NATO’s actions in Libya, a resolution authorizing “all necessary measures” to protect civilians in Syria is a remote prospect.

Making the judgement call that military intervention in Syria would do more harm than good, the Security Council might still impose non-military sanctions to apply pressure— also envisaged by R2P—such as arms embargoes, asset freezes, and the controversial ICC referral. However, the window for the UN to meet its R2P commitment to timely and decisive action is fast receding as the death toll continues to mount.

Indeed, on this basis, we might also include the US in the coalition of defiance, with Washington vacillating for months before finally calling for Assad’s departure. We might also question the US stance on other “kingdoms of silence” in the region that have experienced waves of civil unrest followed by (more successful) brutal crackdowns, notably in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Judging by the Presidential Statement of August 3, the Security Council stance on Syria is not so much one of radical change, but rather one of continuity. In affirming a “strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of Syria,” the Security Council perpetuates its inconsistent and underwhelming record of response to human rights crimes perpetrated by states against their own populations. If Libya is ultimately deemed a glimmer of hope for humanitarianism over power politics, Syria may well prove a defeat.

Originally published: http://www.du.edu/korbel/hrhw/roundtable/2011/panel-c/09-2011/pegram-2011a.html