Tag Archives: Phyllis Bennis

Antonio Guterres’s United Nations: a democratic institution?

Antonio Guterres’s United Nations: a democratic institution?
by Ian Sinclair
The New Arab
11 January 2017

“We the people of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person”.

The humane, internationalist and poetic preamble to the United Nations (UN) Charter is one of the many reasons the UN continues to be a broadly popular institution, with the Pew Research Center noting in 2013 that “publics around the world continue to have a positive impression of the international organization”.

Having taken over from Ban Ki-moon on 1 January 2017, the new UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will, like his predecessors, become “a secular saint, an ambassador of peace and voice of the poor and downtrodden”, according to The Guardian’s Julian Borger.

Western governments have instinctively understood the importance of the UN’s popularity to their own foreign policy objectives. For example, the University of Connecticut’s Dr Stephen Benedict Dyson notes that in the run up to the March 2003 US-UK invasion of Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair “was aware that his stance on Iraq was not popular but remained confident that he could achieve support with a campaign of public persuasion, bolstered by the international diplomacy that would secure UN cover.” And Blair was right. Though he failed to get UN backing, polling conducted by Ipsos MORI just before the invasion showed that the backing of the UN would have massively increased support for the war among the British public.

Considering the global public’s high opinion of the UN, and the important ramifications this popularity can have, it is worth taking time to investigate just how democratic the UN is, and how the most senior position in the organisation is appointed.

With the UN set up in 1945 by the victors of World War Two, the 15-member Security Council dominates, wielding the real authority in the organisation, able to make and enforce decisions. In contrast, the far more representative 193-member, one-nation-one-vote General Assembly is relegated to a deliberative role, its resolutions recommendations only.

Within the Security Council itself the P5 – the permanent members of the Security Council, the US, UK, France, China and Russia – hold the real power. The other ten seats are non-permanent, with nations elected by the General Assembly for two-year terms. Importantly, the P5 have the power to veto any resolution put before the group, even if it has majority support among the 15 members.

“The US is such a big power that it has enormous clout in the Security Council as its defacto ‘majority leader’, putting together the votes and resources to make things happen”, notes international affairs specialist Jeffrey Laurenti.

Accordingly, “for almost 30 years (since 1984) the leading wielder of the veto in the UN security council has been the United States”, explained John Weston, the UK’s permanent representative to the UN between 1995-98, in 2013. Most of Washington’s vetoes have been deployed for a specific reason – since 1982 the US has used its veto 35 times to block resolutions critical of Israel.

Beyond using its veto the US has a variety of other methods it can use to get its way. When Yemen joined Cuba on 29 November 1990 in voting against a Security Council resolution authorising force to eject Iraqi troops from Kuwait, a US official told the Yemeni ambassador “That was the most expensive vote you will have cast”. Shortly afterwards the US aid budget to Yemen was severely cut.

With the US and UK once again looking for the UN’s stamp of approval as they geared up for war in Iraq 13 years later, massive pressure was again applied to the members of the Security Council. The US Ambassador to Mexico warned that if Mexico didn’t support the US it could alienate members of the US Congress. “Relatively straightforward issues related to Mexico” might be “difficult to pass”, he said. President George Bush was blunter, absurdly telling the Mexican President Vicente Fox “I want your vote, the security of the United States is at stake”.

Alongside this bullying diplomacy, the US, working with the UK, instituted a ‘dirty tricks’ spying campaign against the Security Council – involving the interception of the home and office telephones and emails of UN delegates – which was heroically uncovered by Government Communications Headquarters’s whistleblower Katharine Gun.

“When the United States leads, the United Nations will follow”, noted John Bolton, Under-Secretary of State for International Organizations under President George H Bush, in 1994. “When it suits our interest to do so, we will do so. When it does not suit our interests we will not.” This arrogant pick ’n’ mix attitude to working with the UN is also held by members of the Democratic Party establishment, with Madeleine Albright, the US Ambassador to the UN under President Clinton, telling the Security Council “We will act multilaterally when we can and unilaterally as we must.”

Sadly, the undemocratic structure of the UN is reflected in the secretive and opaque process used to choose the Secretary-General. Traditionally the Secretary-General has been chosen behind closed doors by the Security Council, and then presented to the General Assembly for approval.  There is no public record of these discussions except for brief communiques from the Security Council President, and at any point the P5 can veto a candidate.

Borger notes Ki-moon was the US’s preferred candidate ten years ago. During the recently concluded contest, Borger maintains Vuk Jeremic, the ex-Serbian foreign minister, will likely have been vetoed by Washington because of his opposition to an independent Kosovo.

However, it is not all doom and gloom: there are chinks of hope in this relentless pursuit of national interest and power. Proposals for reform have been repeatedly raised by many nations.

Conveniently, in the West ‘reform’ has largely been interpreted at considering the UN’s financial management and inefficiencies. Writing in her essential 1996 book Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s UN, Phyllis Bennis has a different take: “The key UN problem… is the question of power.” Suggestions to equalise the existing rank power imbalance include enlarging the Security Council to be more representative of the planet’s population; restricting the Security Council’s currently wide mandate; curtailing or abolishing the P5’s veto power; and empowering the General Assembly.

One small victory was the opening up of the process to appoint Guterres himself, with the contest beginning with all the candidates publicly explaining their ideals and intentions to the General Assembly – the first time this has happened. This increased transparency arose from pressure applied by the 1 For 7 Billion movement, a campaign supported by 750 organisations across the world working for “an open and inclusive selection process, with genuine involvement by all UN Member States.”

The Security Council still got to choose the final candidate but it is a small step in the right direction. “What we are doing is raising the costs for the permanent five of parachuting a candidate in at the last moment”, Natalie Samarainghe, the Executive Director of the United Nations Association UK, told The Guardian last year. “So it could still be a stitch-up but it wouldn’t happen without an outcry.”

The west, the Middle East and oil: a conspiracy theory?

The west, the Middle East and oil: a conspiracy theory?
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
24 July 2015

Speaking in the House of Commons in January 2003, just two months before the US-UK invasion of Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair stated “The very reason why we are taking the action that we are taking is nothing to do with oil or any of the other conspiracy theories put forward.”

Blair’s analysis was amplified by newspaper columnist David Aaronovitch who, ironically, would go on to write a book dismissing popular conspiracy theories. Addressing the more than one million people who marched through London in opposition to the impending war on 15 February 2003, Aaronovitch asked “Do you really believe that this parroted ‘war about oil’ stuff is true? If so, what were the interventions in oil-less Kosovo, Bosnia and Afghanistan about?”

In contrast, in 2011 Zogby International polled 3,000 people in the Arab world, asking what they thought were the most important factors driving American policy in the Middle East. The top answer, given by 53% of respondents, was “controlling oil”. Suggesting that the hackneyed phrase “people are the same the world over” is actually pretty accurate, a 2003 YouGov poll of the British public found the most popular answer to a question asking why the US and UK wanted to invade Iraq was also “to secure and control oil supplies”.

So, who’s right? Blair and his highly-educated supporters in the media like Aaronovitch or ordinary people across the world? Let’s look at the evidence.

“We’re not there for figs”

As early as December 2001 the Chief of MI6’s private secretary wrote to Sir David Manning, Tony Blair’s foreign policy adviser, explaining that the “removal of Saddam remains a prize because it could give new security to oil supplies.” Oil also seemed to be on Foreign Secretary Jack Straw’s mind when he addressed 150 ambassadors in January 2003, telling them “bolster[ing] the security of British and global energy supplies” was one of the UK’s top foreign policy objectives.

Top US policymakers had made similar calculations. Asked at the May 2003 Asia Security Conference  why the US invaded Iraq and not nuclear-armed North Korea, US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said “Look, the primarily difference – to put it a little too simply – between North Korea and Iraq is that we had virtually no economic options with Iraq because the country floats on a sea of oil.” Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, who became the US Secretary of Defense in 2013, was also at the conference. In 2007 he confirmed Wolfowitz’s comments, stating “People say we’re not fighting for oil. Of course we are. They talk about America’s national interest. What the hell do you think they’re talking about? We’re not there for figs.”

Recently released previously confidential emails to then US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton suggest similar concerns about energy resources were behind the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya. The US-based online newspaper Al Monitor reported that the emails show French spies secretly organised and funded the Libyan rebels who overthrew Gaddafi. According to one of the memos from March 2011 the French intelligence service “indicated that they expected the new government of Libya to favour French firms and national interests, particularly regarding the oil industry in Libya.”

Similarly, in September 2011, with Libyan Government forces in disarray, the US Ambassador reopened the US Embassy in the country, telling reporters “We know that oil is the jewel in the crown of Libyan natural resources”. For the New York Times the Ambassador’s remarks “were a rare nod to the tacit economic stakes in the Libyan conflict for the United States and other Western countries.”

Gilbert Achcar, Professor of Development Studies and International Relations at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS), is far blunter is his assessment of NATO motivations for intervening. “It’s absolutely obvious that oil is a key factor”, he told Democracy Now! in August 2011. “And had Libya not been an oil country, they wouldn’t have intervened.”

Achcar’s conclusion may seem simplistic but it’s backed up by a recent study conducted by academics from the universities of Portsmouth, Warwick and Essex and published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution. Analysing 69 civil wars between 1945 and 1999, the study found foreign intervention is far more likely when the afflicted country has high oil reserves than if it has none.

“The biggest prize in the world”

These examples from recent Western wars in the Middle East fit perfectly with the broader historical record. Even the language stays the same. US Secretary of State Cordell Hull, 1943: “The oil of Saudi Arabia constitutes one of the world’s greatest prizes.” British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, 1957: Middle East oil is “the biggest prize in the world”. David Wearing, who lectures on the Middle East at SOAS, confirmed the West’s long-term interests in the region in a recent tweet: “Just reviewed 40 academic accounts of history of UK-US involvement in Gulf& MidEast. Not one thinks oil isn’t strategic priority.”

With the US largely energy self-sufficient, it’s important to understand Western intervention in the Arab world isn’t about access to Middle Eastern energy supplies but about control. Speaking about the 2011 NATO war in Libya Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, explained: “It’s not about access to the oil itself. That will be on a global market. It will be part of it. It’s about control. It’s about controlling the terms of those contracts. It’s about controlling amounts that are being pumped at different times. It’s about controlling prices. It’s about controlling that crucial resource.” Former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski provided a Machiavellian take on Bennis’s argument in 2003. “America has major strategic and economic interests in the Middle East that are dictated by the region’s vast energy supplies”, he noted. “America’s security role in the region gives it indirect but politically critical leverage on the European and Asian economies that are also dependent on energy exports from the region.”

And it’s also important to realize that what the West wants – control of Middle Eastern energy supplies – the West doesn’t necessarily get. As Donald Rumsfeld infamously said, “Stuff happens”. For example, Libya is mired in chaos and violence (in no small part because of the Western intervention in 2011), so is unable to maximise its oil exports. And, in Iraq, a number of very lucrative oil contracts have been awarded to Russia and China – both of whom opposed the invasion in 2003.

However, all of this doesn’t change the central, inconvenient (at least for Western leaders) fact: far from being a “conspiracy theory”, arguing that oil is the key factor behind Western actions in the Middle East is one of the most evidence-based statements that one can make.