Thursday 09 Apr 2020 | 07:08 | SYDNEY
Thursday 09 Apr 2020 | 07:08 | SYDNEY

Our man at the UN


Michael Fullilove


3 June 2008 10:28

I spent a couple of days last week at UN headquarters in New York, speaking to officials and UN watchers. I can report that opinion remains divided on the Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon. Many officials are yet to be won over by their new chief; others report that after an unsteady start the sailing is now much smoother. A number of observers were impressed by the SG's discussions with the junta in Myanmar, suggesting that although polite in public, he was both tough and effective in his private talks.

On the topic of Myanmar and a discussion that has surfaced in The Interpreter, the general view in New York is that the call by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner for coercive intervention to force the junta to accept international disaster assistance neither benefitted the Burmese people nor furthered the cause of preventing future crimes against humanity. The first argument against Kouchner's intervention was that, as a matter of law, the concept of 'responsibility to protect' (R2P) applies to instances of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and could not stretch to the instant case, regardless of how appallingly the generals were behaving. The second, related, argument is more powerful: R2P is an infant doctrine that has nowhere near as much international support as the voting record at the World Summit a few years back would indicate. Gareth Evans took up this argument in a recent op-ed in The Guardian:

If it comes to be thought that R2P, and in particular the sharp military end of the doctrine, is capable of being invoked in anything other than a context of mass atrocity crimes,  then such consensus as there is in favour of the new norm will simply evaporate in the global South. And that means that when the next case of genocide or ethnic cleansing comes along we will be back to the same old depressing arguments about the primacy of sovereignty that led us into the horrors of inaction in Rwanda and Srebrenica in the 1990s. 

Kouchner's invocation of R2P attracted very little support among member-states (and got a number of backs up on the Security Council) and the minister appeared to backtrack in an article  in Le Monde.

Finally, what of the intriguing story about Alexander Downer becoming Ban Ki-moon's new point man on the Cyprus conflict? From my discussions, he certainly seems to be the SG's leading candidate for the position, though the appointment process still has a way to go. But the suggestion has raised many eyebrows in Turtle Bay, and not only because of Downer's spotty record of support for the UN.

One observer noted to me that the Cyprus problem is at a tricky stage: 'This thing can be solved, but it will require the patience of Job and perfect diplomatic footwork.’ With a job description like that, is Alexander Downer really the first person who comes to mind?

Photo by Flickr user Catching Flies, used under a Creative Commons licence.