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U.N. Agenda a Reflection of Political Power Plays

NEW YORK, Apr 10 2014 (IPS) - To maintain international peace and security is the mandate of the United Nations. But at any given time, through the bodies of the United Nations, global communities struggle to enforce their own interpretations of that mandate, in one single agenda.

The agenda, in reality, is determined by the will of the 15 member-states of the Security Council, reflecting the interests represented. As a result, the Security Council never debated the Vietnam War, the Soviet war in Afghanistan or the partitioning of India, as each of these events served the interests or involved a member of the Council.

“The Security Council can be quite selective in only picking issues that are somehow within the range of stuff they feel comfortable discussing,” said Dirk Salomons, director of the Program for Humanitarian Affairs at the School of International Public Affairs, Columbia University. “So issues like Vietnam were picked up by the General Assembly, which then spoke out in ire about what they saw as major injustices.”

In the same way, the 193-member General Assembly, whose resolutions are non-binding, is bound by no rules that determine the inclusion of any item on the agenda, says Fanny Langella, deputy spokesperson of the president of the General Assembly. Any of the member states and the Secretary-General can request items to be added to the agenda.

“The General Assembly is kind of a steam lid on top of a cauldron, where people produce a lot of hot air that goes up, with vast amounts of resolutions, which are political sentiments that obviously have no implementation value,” said Salomons, who served as executive director for the UN peacekeeping operation in Mozambique, from 1992 to 1993, in addition to a wide range of roles in the United Nations system.

With a lack of agenda guidelines, there is no guarantee international crises will be addressed by the United Nations. According to an internal review by the United Nations, in 2009, evidence suggests the government of Sri Lanka may have been involved in “the intentional shelling of civilians; the intentional shelling of hospitals; the intentional shelling of humanitarian operations; the intentional shooting of civilians; the intentional infliction of suffering on civilians.”

The same study found that “Throughout the final stages of the conflict, member states did not hold a single formal meeting on Sri Lanka, whether at the Security Council, the Human Rights Council or the General Assembly.

Unable to agree on placing Sri Lanka on its agenda, the Security Council held several ‘informal interactive dialogue’ meetings, for which there were no written records and no formal outcomes.”

The government of Sri Lanka has repeatedly denied the charges, challenged the figures in the U.N. report and declared it will not cooperate with a proposed probe by the Human Rights Council.

Taking a swipe at Western military powers accused of human rights violations and civilian killings in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa said last month that “people living in glass houses should not throw rocks at others.”

Amnesty International is one of several human rights groups that pressured the United Nations to investigate war crimes on both sides of the conflict. “During the height of gore and scandal – and you could see from the news reports what was happening, almost in real time – there was a special session of the [U.N.] Human Rights Council at that point, and Sri Lanka, through its maneuvering and its allies in the Human Rights Council, managed to turn the situation around and turn that session into one that at the end came out with a statement congratulating Sri Lanka for its victory,” said José Luis Díaz, the Amnesty International Representative at the United Nations.

In March 2014, the same group that had congratulated Sri Lanka five years earlier, voted in favour of an international investigation after the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights criticized that the Sri Lankan government’s previous investigations lacked credibility. This issue, High Commissioner Navi Pillay said, was “fundamentally a question of political will.”

“The U.N. is a reflection of the power and dynamics of the world,” said Díaz. “You can’t escape that. You have this political structure that not only makes it more difficult to focus on the very powerful, but also makes it difficult on those that are not so powerful but are shielded or protected by the very powerful.”

Externally, pressure comes from advocacy groups and the general public, who may yield a great deal of power. The resolution to investigate into possible war crimes in Sri Lanka is an example of how civil society groups, with the assistance of some countries, can affect change, says Amnesty’s Díaz.

“Groups like Amnesty International … but mostly civil society, continued to press on the need for an international investigation into what happened there – and Sri Lankans themselves kept pressing,” said Díaz.

“Finally, a political body of the U.N., the Human Rights Council, adopted a resolution, calling formally on the Sri Lankan government to conduct a credible investigation, and to bring the results to the Human Rights council. This resolution is not as strong as we would have liked, but it’s a graduated approach that they’re taking.

“That’s the kind of thing that you can achieve, short of the Security Council, through the United Nations.”

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