Sunday, February 17, 2008

Child Soldiers, UNMEE and the Vision Thing

When UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met President Bush at the White House last Friday, there was an exchange of civilities that is worth noting. Mr. Bush expressed appreciation for Ban's "vision" and said "thank you for your leadership and your friendship." Ban thanked Bush for supporting the UN, noting that the "United States is the country with the most ability for technology and financing capacities." The UN's partnership with Washington, he said, "is the crucial and important element in carrying out my duty as Secretary General, and also making the United Nations organization more strengthened in carrying out the common challenges we share together."

That might have been the high point in the UN week. The low points were the debate in the Security Council on Children and Armed Conflict, and the humiliating blackmail of the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritea (UNMEE) by the thuggish regime in Asmara.

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The debate on children was deeply disheartening. It is now over 33 years since the General Assembly adopted a Declaration on the protection of women and children in emergencies and armed conflict. In the years since then it has also adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989, convened a World Summit on Children in 1990, and received the ground-breaking report on children and armed conflict by Gra├ža Machel in 1996. The widow of President Samora Machel of Mozambique (he was killed in an air crash over South Africa in 1986), summed up the enormity of the problem. Just in the past decade, she reported:

"an estimated two million children have been killed in armed conflict. Three times as many have been seriously injured or permanently disabled, many of them maimed by landmines. Countless others have been forced to witness or even to take part in horrifying acts of violence.These statistics are shocking enough, but more chilling is the conclusion to be drawn from them: more and more of the world is being sucked into a desolate moral vacuum. This is a space devoid of the most basic human values; a space in which children are slaughtered, raped, and maimed; a space in which children are exploited as soldiers; a space in which children are starved and exposed to extreme brutality. Such unregulated terror and violence speak of deliberate victimization. There are few further depths to which humanity can sink."

More than a decade after those powerful words, the Security Council has done nothing effective to deal with the problem. For seven years it has received increasingly specific annual reports from the Secretary-General on this most unequivocal of moral issues, and done no more than call -- in 2005 -- for a "monitoring and reporting mechanism" that has neither funding nor structure. (The UN System is supposed to do the job with existing resources.) For the last five years, 16 groups using child soldiers have been named in every annual report of the Secretary-General, but rather than establish a sanctions committee and initiate meaningful action, all the Council has done is set up a Working Group. UN afficionados actually cite that as "progress."

In the Council debate there was little self-recrimination. The only speakers to highlight the lack of action by the Council were those who provided the introductory briefings. Radhika Coomaraswamy, the Secretary-General's Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict, noted that the Council had already expressed its intention to take concrete and targeted measures against groups that used child soldiers, and that it was important to make good on that pledge for the sake of credibility. “It is now time that the Security Council move from words toward effective action,” she said, suggesting that measures could include travel restrictions on the leaders of the groups named, their exclusion from any governance structures and amnesty provisions; the imposition of arms embargoes; and restrictions on the flow of financial resources. Jo Becker of the non-governmental organization Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict was blunter. She stressed that the Council could not expect to achieve accountability based on "empty threats." To ensure its own credibility, it should move to targeted sanctions.

Government delegates all declared themselves in favor of action to save children, but none took the Council to task for being so lethargic. Quite to the contrary. The United States did not agree that the Council should have a general policy or practice of referring cases to the International Criminal Court, as recommended in the Secretary-General’s report. States had different views about the best mechanism for combating crimes against children, and it was important to bear in mind that not all Member States were parties to the Rome Statute.

Slovenia, speaking for the European Union, encouraged the Council to take "appropriate and concrete measures" against the groups named in the Secretary-General's report, but went on to suggest a minimalist "first step:" including the crime of rape and other grave sexual and gender-based violence against children in the criteria triggering inclusion in the UN list of offenders. Belgium thought that listing offenders in UN reports was in itself "an important dissuance instrument."

France (represented by that irredeemable ham Bernard Kouchner in full Falstaffian flow), said “the tragedy of child soldiers forces us to be determined and uncompromising,”and that the United Nations "must play a central role in combating this heinous form of slavery which turns victims into assassins.” The Council, he said, must not shrink from the adoption of strong, targeted measures against parties that failed to comply with its recommendations.

The Council did nothing. It issued a statement that once again called for action -- at the national level.

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On the UNMEE situation the Security Council met in "emergency session" on Friday afternoon for a briefing by Jean-Marie Gu¿henno, the Under-Secretary-General for peacekeeping. The briefing focused on the latest bid by Asmara to blackmail the UN into acting on the findings of an impartial boundary commission which demarcated the Eritrea-Ethiopia border under a 2000 peace agreement. The commission awarded the city of Badme to Eritrea, but Ethiopia refused to move out the forces that had taken the city in the 1998 war. All last week the UN repeatedly and ineffectually protested Eritrea's threats, seizures of equipment, and blockages of food and fuel deliveries to UNMEE.

Typically, the Security Council has been focused on minutiae. The basic problem of the countries along Africa's Red Sea coast has been the clash of foreign interests in an area of great strategic and economic importance. The Red Sea, with the Suez Canal at one end and oil-rich Saudi Arabia on its northern shore, is the busiest waterway in the world. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union achieved strategic dominance of the African coast by installing client regimes in Ethiopia and Somalia, intensifying the bloody power struggles that (in their modern incarnation), began with the Anglo-French rivalry over Egypt in the 18th century and continued with Mussolini's grab of Ethiopia during the run-up to World War I. The discovery of oil in the Sudan, and China's ever heavier footprint in the area (Eritrean dictator Isais Afwerki studied in Beijing), has increased the complexity of the situation. None of this is even mentioned in the extensive UN documentation of the problems of the area.

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