At the UN, a Power Game Over Resolutions

As only 5 members have veto power, it is their priorities that take precedence – even in major conflicts like in Libya

At the UN, a Power Game Over Resolutions
In late April 2019 in Espiaa, about 25 miles south of Tripoli, a fighter for Libya’s interim government stands on a rooftop as smoke rises in the distance during clashes with competing forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar / Fadel Senna / AFP via Getty Images

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres contravened Security Council norms in December when he unilaterally appointed Stephanie Williams — a former U.S. diplomat and previous acting special representative for Libya — as a special adviser for Libya after Russia blocked a veteran U.N. negotiator and British national, Nicolas Kay, from filling the role. By doing so, he bypassed the standard unanimous approval required to appoint a special representative, the formal position abruptly vacated just weeks before Libya’s elections and latest crisis point.

Guterres appears to have been circumspect about the potential for members of the Security Council to similarly block or stall Williams’ more authoritative role, solely because of her country’s representation on the Security Council.

Last week, Russia stalled the renewal of operations of the entire UN mission in Libya in order to force Guterres’ hand to oust Williams and nominate their preference for the Secretary General. Or in other words, anyone other than a representative of a rival nation.

These permanent members with veto power — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, or “P5” — clash regularly on critical matters and have agreed on little in Libya since the popular uprising against Moammar Gaddafi’s rule in 2011. The blocking of appointments and resolutions on critical missions is now common a tool of international power play.

It is a stark reminder that the process of international diplomacy often comes down to the domestic concerns of a handful of the world’s most powerful countries. Competing goals in Beijing, London, Moscow, Paris or Washington color every decision the U.N. Security Council takes about situations and events in places far away. The United Nations was built for the world as it was in 1945. That world is long gone, but the outdated structures remain and are ripe for manipulation in today’s new era of global competition. This is particularly the case in vulnerable places where they all have something to gain or lose. I had a brief glimpse into how Libya became one such example.

Often the consequences of Security Council decisions present Libya with more problems than solutions, the latter of which is the primary purpose of its stated mission of “maintaining international peace and security.”

Let’s take the example of when Khalifa Haftar launched his assault on Tripoli on April 4, 2019. I had just begun a first term serving on the Security Council Panel of Experts for Libya, the independent fact-finding body tasked with investigating sanctions violations and human rights abuses. In this role, I witnessed the dialogue in emails back and forth on the draft resolutions, including objections over the most minor points of wording and language use.

A preference for certain pronouns or adverbs, such as “strongly oppose” compared with just “oppose,” might become scores to settle. One did not need to be especially sensitive to pick up on the unique, passive-aggressive tension of diplomatic correspondence between adversarial nations where sharp criticisms and roadblocks of an opponent nation’s objectives are draped in the formalities of cordial email etiquette.

This dynamic might be expected, though, in a divided international institution making decisions about the direction of a country in which the main players involved have a conflict of interest. But it highlights the inherent complexity of a body making decisions about the future of a conflict country while staffed by people whose governments are actively involved in that conflict.

The April 2019 attack on the capital came as a shock to many, although high-level officials in the Tripoli-based government had picked up on the whispers of war for weeks. Haftar had long advanced the armed groups under his umbrella throughout the country, including just up to the capital environs.

But the intrusion within the city limits — particularly on the rare day Secretary Guterres was in the city for a peace conference — seemed a bridge too far, even for Haftar. Some members of the Security Council appeared to be taken by surprise as well, prompting them to condemn the move, at least among themselves. Within a week, the U.K. — the assigned penholder for the Libya file at the time — attempted to put forward a unified Security Council response to Haftar’s attack, even if only on humanitarian grounds.

This effort garnered initial widespread support. But the United States, although not opposing the spirit of the measure, drew criticism and ultimately suspicion for requesting more time to take a position. (France also did not oppose but had blocked a simultaneous resolution in the EU system based on a similar premise.) The Russian mission balked outright, presumably because Moscow’s ostensible ally, Haftar and his armed coalition, was called out by name. The draft never ended up going “blue,” meaning a draft that is adopted and put into blue text for formal negotiation before it heads to a vote.

And just like that, a straightforward resolution — designed for the purpose of decrying an act of aggression and calling for a cessation of hostilities — was shelved because of a failure to reach consensus.

The reason that such a justifiable effort fell short of even the negotiation stage is complicated. But it shows how opaque the diplomatic process and resolution-drafting mechanism are and how seemingly straightforward goals can be thwarted by a single actor or groups of actors with narrow interests and decision-making power. The ability to pass resolutions is largely dependent upon who is proposing them, the issue and place in question, the timing and the calculation of what the most powerful countries think they might gain or lose from them.

The P5 are the permanent players that ultimately run the show on whether a resolution will move forward. The other 10 members of the Security Council, elected from among the other 187 countries, serve only a nonrenewable two-year term, and their positions on resolutions are typically deferential. These nations that rotate in and out are little more than a symbolic representation of diversity because they have no power to affect outcomes at an international level other than through diplomatic influence via P5 nations. For all intents and purposes, the Security Council is the five permanent members.

When a draft resolution is initially shared with the 15 nations represented on the Security Council, each nation goes through an internal process with their own respective governments before considering even a preliminary, off-the-record position. Each nation has domestic and foreign interests that, depending on the issue or place at hand, have some level of political, economic or security interest.

Broadly speaking, each nation consults its own various government agencies and institutions, foreign and defense ministries, and intelligence arms to arrive at a decision as to whether to adopt a resolution and move it forward. This obviously takes place out of the view of any of the other parties at the U.N. If there is potential for an ally of a nation represented on the Security Council to be affected in some way, either positively or negatively — for example, between the U.S. and France or Russia and China — bilateral discussions will similarly take place outside U.N. corridors. This is particularly the case in conflicts such as the issues involving Libya, in which P5 nations had stakes in areas as disparate as migration, energy resources and trade, to say nothing of the geopolitical consequences. All were competing with one another behind the scenes for influence.

Once a draft is adopted by consensus and is within U.N. purview, the essence and direction of a draft resolution still takes place behind closed doors before it is put into a form that can be hammered out in the relative open. This standard practice unfortunately has the potential to build momentum for potentially controversial resolutions. One such example is the 2011 measure promoting NATO intervention in Libya that China and Russia abstained from supporting at different times and that was later found to be based on limited evidence of any imminent threat, according to a 2016 U.K parliamentary investigation. Alternatively, this now-institutionalized process also limits the potential for reasonable resolutions to be put on the record for formal negotiation, such as with the draft calling for a ceasefire in response to the April 2019 Tripoli attack.

Perhaps more relevant, however, is that the power to put forward a draft is overwhelmingly concentrated among the “P3” – the U.K., the U.S. and France. These three permanent members and strategic allies are self-appointed as “penholder nations” that draft most resolutions put forward in the Security Council.

For Libya, only the U.K. “held the pen” from 2011 until later in 2019 when Germany, at the time also the Libya sanctions committee chair, requested and was granted a co-role. A few other examples of shared and diversified penholdership are on the books, including issues affecting Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea. But these are only recent examples and are considerable aberrations. The other two permanent members — Russia and China, or the “P2” as they are commonly referenced — and the additional 10 rotating members have largely deferred to this informal norm.

It nevertheless remains deeply controversial. In short, it means that with a few recent exceptions, every resolution drafted by the Security Council on any topic around the world — from conflicts in Libya or the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the mission in Haiti — is drafted from the perspective of just three countries: the U.K., the U.S. and France.

This process is problematic on multiple levels, not only for the rotating members who rightly deserve expanded access to decision-making and leadership power but also for the P3 itself. In the not-so-distant past, it was hardly a feat at all for a Western-led resolution to invade or occupy to be approved. The U.S. 1990 response to Iraq’s usurpation of Kuwait, the 2001 mission in Afghanistan, and the haphazard invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 met with fast and easy international support, for example. Even the NATO intervention in Libya passed despite some vitriolic international politics, as the P2 abstained but did not veto. But times have changed. The P3 is more than likely to see more opposition from China and Russia in a manner that circumvents existing norms and a history of deference, particularly as the global disorder takes new form in the coming years.

With specific reference to the U.K.-led draft resolution condemning Haftar’s Tripoli offensive, I had to do some memory-jogging to write this article. The U.N.’s online library keeps a meticulous accounting of every draft resolution that is adopted and voted on in the chamber, and it is easy to find the final versions. A real human librarian stands at the ready to chat online to guide the user. But even if a draft does get adopted or “goes blue,” there is no public record of the negotiation process or content disagreements and changes.

When a user queries the online library’s FAQ, How can I find draft resolutions not adopted? the answer reads: Finding information about draft decisions or resolutions not adopted can be very challenging. That means even the expert panel that I served on never had the opportunity to see the exchanges — or the reasons the draft never went blue — because it was dead-on-arrival behind the curtain. More important, however, there is absolutely no U.N.-maintained record of the event or process, much less the text of a black-and-white document, for the public to reference. The politicking that decided the fates of millions vanishes from history.

In short, the task is impossible unless you’re a current high-level U.N. staffer or diplomat privy to the inside baseball. The virtual librarian will confirm this in so many words.

Some might argue that it is necessary for each nation represented in the Security Council to keep discussions within their own institutions private, which makes a lot of sense. In a world of increasing disorder and antagonism among great power centers that hold veto power in the Security Council, adversaries are thinking foremost about protecting and furthering their own interests in damaging ways, and some go around the post-World War II global rules structure in order to achieve them.

It is certainly better, one might imagine, to hash out these tensions in a nonviolent space with all of the built-in constraints of bureaucracy. Others might posit that allied nations with longstanding alliances have the right to negotiate beyond the purview of U.N. processes in order to best address and protect their mutual needs in today’s competitive international domain.

These arguments are absolutely reasonable. After all, the domestic politics in each of these nations is complex and the internally competitive processes behind the drive of their foreign policies is equally messy. And that’s not accounting for multidimensional factors in international relationships, climate change pressures, economic and political upheavals, the endless pandemic and historical grievances that carry into the present. Perhaps it is better, some U.N. or member-state government officials might say, for the high-strung, closed-door negotiations to stay out of view until the decorum of a calm and civilized floor vote.

But if we accept those premises, then we are also forced to acknowledge that the U.N. Security Council resolution drafting process — even regarding a straightforward and morally sound resolution — becomes less about stabilizing countries, effecting ceasefires, protecting vulnerable populations or “maintaining international peace and stability” and more about the diplomatic maneuverings among a handful of governments to unabashedly protect self-interests beyond their own borders. War among the P5 may be averted, but proxy combatants far from home tend to get stuck paying the bill.

What I do know through my direct experience is that the decisions of the nations presiding on the Security Council directly affect living and breathing humans in irreversible ways.

My assigned role on the panel was to cover the western part of Libya, where the bulk of the fighting in the 2019-2020 war was concentrated and where the exploitation and abuse of migrants was most visible. Despite the obvious challenges of carrying out research in an infinitely fractured conflict country with limited site visits due to security concerns, this was the easy part. Although not a function of my academic background or professional training, I was tasked with uncovering human rights violations and incidents of gender-based violence. The better part of my job meant getting up close and earning the trust of victims of men and women tortured or raped as well as those who witnessed families being massacresd or had sons forcibly disappeared. I recorded their stories for the purpose of building objective case files on potential perpetrators, but I internalized the devastation to their lives in the process.

For many Libya observers who knew about the U.K.-led draft resolution by word of mouth or read about it in the press, unanimous agreement to proceed to a vote and adopt it should have been a no-brainer. A coalition of armed groups led by a onetime self-appointed general made the unilateral decision to invade heavily populated civilian areas where fierce opposition was imminent. To have on record that the permanent five members — clearly a concentration of the world’s most powerful actors — unanimously and vociferously censured Haftar’s attack could have shifted his perception and calculations as well as possibly the course of the war.

The play of international politics got in the way. Endless maneuverings by the permanent members often have little to do with the needs of one particular country, whose future is too often determined by competitive whims. Rather, the narrow objectives of each within that competitive environment and the diplomatic relationships amongst themselves are too often the primary drivers of their decisions. And what is invisible to the general public, historians, or the journalists that make a job of paying notice to resolutions in real-time is more than just a document. The very process makes the prolongation, and sometimes the start of unnecessary conflict and resultant human suffering a secret for only a few to ever pay witness.

Coming up with the typical pithy op-ed style bullet-point solution set as a conclusion to this article seems a pointless endeavor, if only because this topic is infinitely complex.

More important, it is a pretty fair bet at this stage that the system will not change. For decades, there have been plenty of policy suggestions by insiders for Security Council reform. None has worked. It is ultimately up to the P5 to take a lead to disperse decision-making and leadership power among the nations that make up the rest of the world. That means that, at some point, the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China will need to voluntarily give up power. Genuine reform would mean that none of the great powers represented in the P5 would be able to manipulate U.N. processes for their own gain at the expense of weaker states. Within the past few years, calls for a more agile, multilateral and representative Security Council from within the General Assembly have become louder. But there has been little action.

Libya’s elections were canceled amid a chaotic and profoundly unstable political environment just as the very existence of the UN mission emerged as a bargaining chip among the Security Council’s permanent members.

Although the U.N.’s replacement role of adviser by the U.S. representative was better than nothing, it has only served as a temporary fix that fails to address the underlying problem that surfaced again just a month later, and which further endangers the mission’s viability and credibility.

If the vote to approve a routine measure like the appointment of a special representative becomes a tool of international power politicking, the real casualty in the process are the Libyans who deserve better from the UN. If the Security Council has so surely lost its way, perhaps it is time for governments represented in the body to consider a stark revision of the way it does business — or redraft its mission statement.

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