The UN and International Affairs: Some Aspects of the Year in Review for 2017 and Some Expectations for 2018

World in Turmoil

“The UN and International Affairs: Some Aspects of the Year in Review for 2017 and Some Expectations for 2018” by Curtis FJ Doebbler[1]


The year 2017 was an odd year in international affairs by almost any account. It was a year of surprises and where the impossible became reality and reality seemed clouded by “False News” and other competing claims. History will likely look back sympathetically on the confused observer who is not sure what really happened in 2017. Despite the apparent confusion, it is nevertheless valuable to recount some of the most remarkable events remembering Niccolo Machiavelli’s 16th century advice in De Principatibus or The Prince, that “[w]hoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times.” The following are some end-of-year thoughts of an international lawyer and observer of international affairs in 2017 and expectations for 2018.

The year started with a murky omen hanging over the world with the United States of America, perhaps the most powerful country in the world, posed to inaugurate a president who had admitted sexually abusing women, regularly communicates his policy via social media, and regularly voices unorthodoxly undiplomatic opinions about world affairs, other world leaders and other countries. President Donald Trump had about three million fewer votes than his opponent Hillary Clinton, but still triumphed over the woman who would have been the first female President in the history of the United States. Despite Clinton’s millions-vote-advantage through out the US, the election was decided by 106,000 voters in three of the US’s fifty States. Considering the surprising results, many international observers are wondering should there be some minimum ethical standards with which world leaders must comply. Others are wondering if the Electoral College, which functions as a proxy for the American people, is a fair and democratic means for allowing people to participate in their own government. The latter being a minimum legal standard, a human right that most States have agreed to abide by, for example, in accepting article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The United States has also ratified this treaty. In 2018, American voters might avenge their faux pas by handing Democrats a majority in both houses of Congress in the November elections.

Because American voters will not be able to recall or impeach American President Donald Trump during his four-year term despite his past and constant missteps, some of which appear to cross the line to be unlawful, the tenure of President Trump makes for an uncertain global future in 2018. While the US economy has boomed—but much less than bitcoin (see below)—it appears to have been at the expense of most Americans, or at least the poorest, and much of the rest of the world. Meanwhile, the impetuous rhetorical exchanges between the North Korean leader and his American counterpart made the Doomsday Clock ( tick a half minute closer to the last midnight for all of us. As a result, 2018 holds the threat of Trump starting a war with North Korea, the threat that Americans may be less safe around the world because of the animosity their President has attracted while further isolating the United States from its friends.

For the optimistic, 2018 could hold the unlikely surprise that both the US and North Korea, of course with all other nuclear powers, completely change course and ratify the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty that was adopted and opened for ratification in 2017. This treaty offers the best, and perhaps only, chance to mitigate the threat of nuclear war. For this to happen would mean a shift in political positions has occurred that required more courage than anything we have seen in recent history.

As nuclear-armed States bickered threatening each other, the cryptocurrency Bitcoin went from about 1000 CHF to over 19,000 CHF and then somewhat back again. All the while investments in the speculative currency continued to rise. At the same time, few people seem to understand how the speculative currency transactions actually work and especially the risk involved. Did this reflect distrust in governments? Maybe, because cryptocurrencies depend on trusting one’s own internet security and that of others, while traditionally currencies depend on a government’s central bank or currency trading gurus who earn profits on trades whether or not the investor does. Rather than being a barometer of cryptocurrency values, the rollercoaster ride of Bitcoin might continue to reflect peoples’ concern about governments’ credibility.

While government’s change, we all continue to live on the same planet. In 2017, the governments of the world that had agreed to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 continued to discuss taking action to prevent the destruction of the atmosphere of our planet. Once again however, not much progress was made. At the same time, the scientific imperative of our destruction of the planet, became dangerously closer to becoming a reality. Ironically, the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23) to the UNFCCC was hosted by Fiji, but took place in Bonn, Germany, as natural disaster torn Fiji was not considered to be desirable place to hosting it. But the mere conference facility is not the only thing that Fiji was ‘gifted’. Fiji also received Baker and McKenzie advisors who allegedly advised the COP223 Presidency that loss and damage was not to be a priority. They did this despite knowing that inadequate action from previous COPs, including the de minimus Paris Agreement, had created a situation where countries like Fiji were going to suffer significant unavoidable damage from climate change and needed loss and damages to protect themselves. While the talks will keep going observers must increasingly be wondering if anything can really be accomplished in this forum. The annual forum that will take place from 3 to 14 December 2018 in fossil fuel prompter Poland is unlikely to provide an answer. There is an outside chance that COP24 could however be the stick—or piece of coal—that breaks the back of the annual UNFCCC jamboree. But if this happens, what will happen?

The United Nations itself seemed not to be sure of its own value or mandate. Its Secretary-General Antonio Guterres first appointed a retail and manufacturing executive to head its children’s agency, UNICEF, apparently just because the US told him to do so, passing over several more qualified candidates who were apparently recommended by his staff that interviewed candidates. The new Executive Director, Henrietta Holsman Fore, is the Chief Executive Officer of Holsman International, an shadowy manufacturing, consulting and/or investment company that appears to be family or government owned; on the Board of the fossil fuel company, the ExxonMobil Corporation; on the board of a company plagued by dishonest false labeling lawsuits, General Mills; and on the board of a pharmaceutical company with a single approved product for adults and none for children, Theravance Biopharma. The closest she appears to have come to working on children’s rights or protection was as an US government employee that headed the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Deputy Secretary of State responsible for US foreign assistance. Most embarrassing for the Secretary-General, however, may have been the fact that NGOs nominated at least three eminently more qualified candidates, but he had passed over them apparently despite the advice of several of his Under-Secretary-Generals due to US pressure. Indeed, the whole matter made the UN Secretary-General and the entire UN system look like the Portuguese equivalent of the proverbial “poodle” being dragged around on leash by an US President who is often referred to as “The Donald.”

By the time the UNICEF announcement was made in his name, Guterres had flown the coupe for his European holiday apparently so embarrassed by his capitulation to American pressure that he didn’t even stay to see the UN budget through its bumpy process of adoption by the General Assembly. In his absence, which several States expressly noted during the budget process, the UN’s budget was adopted but with a 285 million CHF cut. The US took credit for this pyrrhic victory. A weary observer at the UN’s early morning budget session wondered how the US has so much influence on the world body despite the fact that it treats it so badly. Others pointed out on Tweeter that while the US earns more hard currency from the UN in New York than it contributes, it still complains about the world organization.

The last month of 2017 saw an apparent accumulation of significant disgust with the way the UN system was functioning, including from senior people within the UN itself. Apparently fed-up with UN politics and apparently frustrated by the Secretary-General’s unwillingness to sufficiently support him, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Under-Secretary-General Jordanian Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein, announced he would not seek a second term as High Commissioner. The first Arab High Commissioner cited lack of a political environment conducive to this work. This inside hit, came just months after the Secretary-General had unexpectedly lost another key member of his senior management team, when the Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations Population Fund’s (UNFPA), Nigerian Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin, died suddenly.

Not only the Secretary-General, but neither his spokesperson and his Under-Secretary-General for Communications seemed unwilling to discuss UN affairs at the end of December. Final week press conferences were cancelled, cut-short, or just not held. And the only journalist that remained at the New York City Headquarters to cover the late-night sessions of the United Nations General Assembly on 23 and 24 December ended the year still fighting to recover his rights as an accredited resident journalist after his small office at the UN was given away to an Egyptian State-media company that hardly attend ever attends the United Nations. This apparent punishment had been levied after the journalist, Matthew Lee of Inner City Press, had reported on corruption with in the UN.

The Deputy-Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, the former Environment Minister of Nigeria, also came under attack shortly after taking up her post. Allegedly she authorized the sale of protected natural Rosewood to China without proper authority and in violation of existing laws and then allegedly claimed she did not know what she was doing at the time. UN Observers asked is this the ‘UN We Want’ (using the phrase associated with the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 Agenda)? At the same, time the Secretary-General seemed to be delegating more and more responsibility to his Deputy, while reserving peace and security issues to himself, but with few successes to show in 2017.

As a consequence, the UN will likely start 2018 on the defensive and face even more seriously tests of its integrity than it did in 2017. It will likely be challenged to achieve more with less and to confront the fact that the host of its global headquarters really does not want it. Will the Secretary-General have to courage to move the UN out of the US? Will be able to deal with the US without looking even more subservient?

The UN family had its own up and downs. The High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, struggled with a so-called ‘refugee crisis’ that rolled into the second year of his five-year mandate with little respite in sight. Despite the fact that his native Italy and all the other relatively wealthy European States combined took in fewer refugees than many of the world’s poorest countries—Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia, for example, were caring for an estimated almost 2 million refugees in 2017—Grandi found himself focusing on the Europeans’ problems.

Ethiopia did provide a bright hope in the UN landscape as is native son, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, was elected the first African Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) in its 72-year history. Dr. Tedros, the name by which he is widely known, had been his country’s minister of health and then foreign affairs. His first six months in office at WHO were however marred by controversies arising from a series of political and administrative blunders. These included naming the then-Zimbabwe sitting head of State as a special envoy, enlisting people still representing their private non-State actors to write WHO policy papers and influence WHO policy, appointing twice as many senior staff to the financially strapped Specialized Agency as his predecessor and mainly on the basis of politics and not merit, and reneging on a growing list of campaign promises. His campaign promises to make climate change, the right to health, and children’s health priorities, essentially disappeared from his General Programme of Action. This left his supporters mainly from developing countries wondering if they had indeed elected someone who would finally prioritize their interests or merely a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’.

In 2018, both Dr. Tedros and Mr. Grandi may have much to answer for respectively at the WHO Executive Board in January and the UNHCR Executive Committee in October. Whether they will be able to weather the storms that are brewing so early in their tenures will be a test of their abilities to do the jobs for which they were hired.

The principal judicial organ of the UN, the International Court of Justice, was not spared from the usual events unfolding across the globe. In December elections, for the first time in the Court’s more than seven decades of existence there was no British judge elected to the court. A British judge was up for election, in fact one who was already on the court and had been put forward for re-election. This time, however, the British candidate was challenged by an Indian candidate. In the first rounds of voting by the Security Council and the General Assembly, both of which must approve a judge, the British had a majority of up to six Security Council Member States, while the Indian had had majorities in the dozens in the General Assembly. In the tenth and penultimate round of General Assembly voting, Indian judge Dalveer Bhandari secured 121 votes to British judge Christopher Greenwood, who then conceded defeat. With 3 cases under deliberation and 17 cases pending, 2018 will likely be a busy year for the Court. 2018 will also be a busy, and difficult year of the European Union, which is likely to cost the British economy dearly.

The European Union itself bounced back somewhat in 2017 successfully confronting the threat of a European break-up with strong Pro-Europe candidates triumphing over skeptics in France and to a lesser extend in Germany. At year’s end most polls showed that a convincing majority of British citizens were already regretting their decision to leave the European Union. With economies growing and enjoying increasingly rosy prognoses in comparison to the tenuous American economy, the European is likely to be able to continue its winning ways into the new year.

Economically, the American isolation is also being interpreted as a concession to its economic leadership around the world. While well-established, often through long-standing exploitative relationships, the United States economic superiority appeared to show clear signs of decline. Significant among these signs were the unfettered moves by China, Russia, and India to assert their influence around the world. China followed the US tradition in some respects by latching military might in the China South Sea to its rapidly expanding economic strength. India, which seemed deadlocked with Pakistan in a military conflict on its Northern border, exercised a more liberal economic policy that boosted growth. 2018 however may accent differences between China and India’s growth. The principle separating factor is the greater inequality and exclusion of women in India. Russia, whose economy suffered in the last few years due to a mix of market factors and sanctions, seemed to be returning to growth by the end of 2017 and likely into the new year.

Despite a global economic upturn, developing countries appeared to fail further behind the economic development of their richer neighbors largely due to the international community’s unwillingness to adequately address the adverse consequence of climate change, a contraction of development finance, and unfavourable foreign investment trends. In the latter case it is not so much a shrinking of foreign investment as it is the failure of much of this investment to benefit the developing country. Instead, foreign investment too often results in profit-taking that benefits a developed country or it citizens. One factor in changing the mindset of developing countries might be the arrival of government figures willing to put their country first and to realize foreign investors are doing the same for their own countries.

There events by no means constitute a summary of the most important happenings across the globe, although any observer of international affairs would be hard pressed to deny the inclusion of most of them in their own list of significant occurrences in 2017.

[1] Research Professor of Law, University of Makeni, Visiting Professor of Law, Webster University (Geneva), member International-Lawyers.Org.

Photo credit: AFP.


U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark Urges Nations of the World to Join Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty

Editor’s Note: The Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty will be open for signature and ratification on 20 September 2017 at United Nations Headquarters in New York City.

By Ramsey Clark, the 66th Attorney General of the United States

An observer of international affairs in its current state might be forgiven for being pessimistic about the state of the world in particular its respect for international law. It is easy to forget that international law is usually respected when we see a world in which there are prominent examples of serious violations of the most fundamental rules of international law. Perhaps the most serious area in which international law is underwhelmingly respected is as relates to nuclear weapons. While only a few States possess nuclear weapons and some allow nuclear weapons to be housed on their territory, the overwhelming majority of States want to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Nuclear Weapons Ban treaty
Image credit: /articles/11318/uk-isolated-and-campaigners-vindicated-un-nuclear-weapons-ban (ICan: International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons).

In 1996 the International Court of Justice, the principle judicial organ of the United Nations, was asked to give an Advisory Opinion on the legality of nuclear weapons. The Court opined that it could not think of an instance when the use of nuclear weapons could be legal. In other words, every example of the possible use of nuclear weapons that the Court could come up with would violate international law. Nevertheless, the Court determined then it could not find a rule of international law generally prohibiting nuclear weapons. It did state, however, that article IV of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty required all states to negotiate in good faith to eliminate nuclear weapons.

It is in furtherance of this obligation that States agreed in 2016 to begin negotiations in the spring of 2017 towards a Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty. This treaty text was agreed by the overwhelming majority of States of the UN General Assembly. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of the States participated in negotiations during the spring and summer of 2017. The States that possessed nuclear weapons, their own weapons or other States’ weapons stationed in their States and a very few of their allies, refused to participate in the negotiations.

Nevertheless, on 7 July 2017, the United Nations General Assembly took the historic step of adopting the text of the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty. This treaty was adopted by a vote of 122 States voting for the treaty text, one state—the Netherlands—voting against the treaty text, and one state—Singapore—abstaining. In total 70 States, including the United States, did not participate in the vote; many of the smaller States seem to have been intimidated by the United States and other nuclear weapon possessing States.

This treaty calls upon States to report the exact size of their nuclear weapons armories and, most importantly, calls upon all State Parties to eliminate their nuclear weapons. States not only have legal obligations to cut back the number of nuclear weapons they possess, but they have a legal obligation to eliminate all the nuclear weapons they possess. When this laudable goal is accomplished it will be one of the most significant steps taken towards ensuring global peace and security that we have ever taken. Whether the United Nations can make this treaty work, which requires ensuring the membership of all States, is perhaps the most important test of the vitality and usefulness of the United Nations in the 21st century.

Nuclear Weapons Ban treaty voting1
Screen showing General Assembly voting at the United Nations on 7 July 2017. Only the Netherlands voted against the treaty and only Singapore abstained. Some (nuclear-weapon-possessing) States did not vote.

As someone who has lived through the creation and proliferation of nuclear weapons, I have for decades warned of the grave threat that they pose to humanity. I have testified to this in courtrooms and I have advocated it from public stages. More importantly I have advocated for their complete elimination. The just-adopted Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty aspires to accomplish this goal. It is an example of the law leading humanity in the right direction. It is a treaty that all States, including the United States, must ratified as part of their responsibility to humanity, both of those living today and future generations. No State can afford to be on the wrong side of history on this issue. Nuclear weapons must be eliminated for the survival of humankind.


Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann by Ramsey Clark

RC & MDB1Few people make an impact on the world without humble pretensions to personal fame. My friend Miguel was one of those persons who lived his life for others. Although born into a upper-middle class family he gave up the a more comfortable life to become a priest, a labor he saw as his calling. But when injustice beset his people in Nicaragua Miguel did what he thought justice required, he stood by his people despite the condemnation of his beloved Catholic Church.

Miguel understood the real meaning of his calling. To serve others was to serve to the fullest without reserve even for one’s own well-being. Despite the objections of the Church hierarchy he became a leader in the Sandinista government, its foreign minister, after they ended decades of dictatorship and suffering for the Nicaraguan people.

Although Miguel had no formal legal training he had great respect for the rule of law and believed that all nations must respect international law. This led him to initiate a case on behalf of Nicaragua before the International Court of Justice, the principle judicial body of the United Nations. The case today still stands as one of the most important cases in international legal history concerning the United States deadly meddling in the internal affairs of another State.

I visited Miguel many of times in Nicaragua. I saw his love and passion for his people, and how they gave back in return. Nicaraguans from the President of the country and its most prominent philosophers, to his friends from the neighborhood and the most rural areas of the country would come to visit him. He truly loved his fellow Nicaraguans and they loved him. There may not have been an individual in Nicaragua who was so respected and loved by his own people.

When Miguel came to New York City to be President of the United Nations General Assembly in 2008-2009, it was a pleasure to be not only one of his friends, but also one of his advisors. His commitment to improving the world was as generous as his love for all Nicaraguans. Confronted by a world financial and economic crisis, he led the UN through those hard times by moving it closer to the ideals embedded in the Charter of the United Nations. And as usual for him, he went even further, he was the only President of the General Assembly in recent times to propose significant reforms to the United Nations. He wanted the United Nations to live up to its mandate and the promise of a peaceful world in which all people enjoyed the benefits of development and our shared natural resources.

Some called Miguel an idealist and some belittled his criticism of the United States, the country I love and of which I know a thing or two about having been an American lawyer for more than 60 years and the United States 66th Attorney General. As someone who knows the United States and Miguel, I know his concern for the United States was not one of hostility, but one of love. He desperately wanted to see the United States become a valuable contributing equal among sovereign States in the international community. He wanted to see the United States work with other States to achieve common goals that have been agreed among all States. He wanted to see the United States become great because of its cooperation based on the rule of international law and the morality of justice, equality, and equity.

Miguel’s strong faith in God, which Pope Francis acknowledged when he restored his full privileges as a priest just a few years ago, was a faith in a better way: he believed in a world based on solidarity, not merely competition.

In so many ways, Miguel was an unique role model. A person who committed his life to helping others without the limitations of personal benefit. Today the world so badly needs such people. Many might call such people unabashed and unrealistic idealists, I like to think of them as valuable, hard-working, and contributing citizens who understand the importance of respect for the rule of law.

Statement by International-Lawyers.Org (INTLawyers) to the Public Session of the Aarhus Compliance Committee held in Geneva, Switzerland on 27 June 2017

INTLawyers welcomes the work of the Aarhus Compliance Committee and indeed the mandate of the Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention).

INTLawyers is a legal organization with former Attorney-General’s, Prime Ministers, and Foreign Ministers on our Advisory Board and members who are prominent professors and practitioners of law situated from the United States and European as well as places as far away as India, Sierra Leone, and the South Pacific. As predominately a lawyers’ organization, INTLawyers welcomes the work of Committees which we believe makes an important contribution to ensuring respect for the rule of international law.

INTLawyers or its members have followed the Committee since January 2015, the process under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for the past decade, and the United Nations’ human rights mechanisms since 1976. It is on each of these processes that we wish to comment.

First, as concerns the work on human rights and climate change at the Human Rights Council (HRC), we express our concern about the lack of both progress and transparency or participation in the Council’s work on this issue. While we welcome that the Members States of the Council are considering human rights and climate change annually, we believe that the progress made has been inadequate in part because of issues relating to transparency or participation in this work that falls under the auspices of this Committee. We judge progress on an issue as is common within the Council by how it is dealt with formally and through mechanisms that might enhance is implementation. Formally, we note that human rights and climate change is not an agenda item on the Council’s agenda. It depends on the ad hoc concern of States at any given session or annual cycle of sessions. Moreover, while some States that are disproportionately affected by adverse effects of climate change have kept the issue on the Council’s agenda, other States—including State Parties to the Aarhus Convention have tried to remove it—most disturbingly through means that limit transparency or participation by civil society actors. It should be recalled that to date the Council has not given effect to the unanimous call by participating NGOs at the 2010 HRC Social Forum to establish a special procedure or mandate on human rights and climate change. The establishment of a mandate is the most common means of judging progress on an issue before the Council. Instead, the Council’s work on human rights and climate change has been mired in a repetitive series of seminars, panels, and half-day discussions without the Council committing to any more substantive action on this issue. Most recently, as occurred in June 2016 as well, when the Council held informals to consider its annual resolution on human rights and climate change the text of the resolution was withheld from accredited NGOs until the actual meeting in which it was discussed and these NGOs were denied their request to intervene at the informal meeting. We regret that some of the most prominent States that apparently endorsed this dual lack of transparency and participation were Aarhus Convention Member States. We would hope that these States, respecting their obligations under the Convention would be at the forefront of pushing for greater public transparency on the issue of human rights and climate change and that they would equally encourage greater civil society involvement in the processes of the Council on this issue.

Second, we note that at the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) held in Paris in December 2015 our NGO considered initiating proceedings within the national legal system in France to challenge the exclusion of Observers from contact groups. Our action as based on France’s failure to observe its international legal obligations in the Aarhus Convention. The French decision contradicted an undertaking given at the Bonn meetings and the undertaking of the two co-chairs off the Working Group that our NGO had personally solicited in public meeting just days before the start of COP15. Moreover, while the overwhelming majority of UNFCCC Member States had supported the participation of Observers in accordance with past practice, a small number of States, the majority of which appeared to be Aarhus Convention Member States, opposed it. Among those opposing it, was most notably the State holding the COP15 Presidency, France, which is a prominent Aarhus Convention Member State. It was for this reason that we sought to challenge this decision in the French courts. Unfortunately, our action was blocked by a combination of French procedural law that requires that a huissier be employed to observe the complained of act—in this case denial of Observer organizations’ ability to attend Contact-Group meetings, for which neither our videotaped evidence nor the public decision of the COP15 President was not apparently sufficient—and the UNFCCC Secretariat’s decision to prevent the huissier from entering the United Nation’s premises as he had not been accredited six months in advance of the meeting. As a result, our action—our access to the French judicial system—was completely denied for the purpose of raising a legal issue of compliance with the Aarhus Convention. Had it not been for the representations of some partner NGOs that they wished to discuss this with France, we would have filed a communication with this Committee during the year of the France’s COP15 Presidency.

Third, we want to express our appreciation for the efforts of Ambassador Nazhat Shameem-Khan and chief negotiator for the host State, Fiji, for her efforts to try to provide for more transparency and more adequate participation activities for Observers. While we heartily welcome these efforts, we are equally dismayed at the efforts undertaken by several Aarhus Convention Member States to obstruct Fiji’s efforts. An example of how this conflict has worked itself out in practice is the disappointing decision to house Observer’s side-events in the Green Zone, outside the easy reach of negotiators who often confine themselves to the Blue Zone due to their heavy responsibilities in the negotiations and the fact that their meeting rooms and office are located in the Blue Zone. The result will be, we believe, a significant deterioration of the impact of side-events on the governmental negotiations. In addition, it appears as if Observers will again be excluded from Contact-Group meetings in Bonn, Germany. The deteriorating access of Observers to even passively observe negotiations is troubling and run counter to the object and purpose as well as the express words of the Aarhus Convention. That such action is being supported by Aarhus Member States is troubling and we suggest raises an issue as to whether or not these States are complying with their international legal obligations under the Aarhus Convention.

Finally, while recognizing the complex jurisdictional considerations that may arise we hope that this Committee will view any future communication concerning the UNFCCC process very seriously especially when a meeting is held in a country under this Committee’s jurisdiction.

Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann: The World has Lost a Champion for Justice

Pix6Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, the 65th President of the United Nations General Assembly from 2008 to 2009, former Foreign Minister of Nicaragua, renown human rights defender, and Advisory Board Member of International-Lawyers.Org, died on Thursday, 8 June 2017.

Father Miguel was a leading figure of his generation. A priest by training, his heart and soul were committed to seeking justice. He was one of those rare people who was willing to stand up to any power, even the most powerful States to condemn their injustices and fight to bring justice. His life inspired millions around the world to fight for justice without fear of the most powerful opponents.

Father Miguel was born on 5 February 1933 in Los Angles, California in the United States of America, but raised in in Nicaragua. In 1953, he entered the Maryknoll seminary and he was ordained a priest in 1961. He earned a Master of Science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 1962 and in 1970 founded the Maryknoll publishing house, Orbis Books. In 1972, he founded the Nicaraguan Foundation for Integral Community Development (FUNDECI), to assist the people displaced by Managua earthquake that had decimated his country.

He also joined the Sandinistas, the struggle against nearly half a century of dictatorship in Nicaragua. In 1979, when the Sandinistas overthrew the Somoza dictatorship, Father Miguel was named Foreign Minister of Nicaragua, a post he held for 11 years. His involvement in politics as a priest was criticized by some in the Vatican, but he defended it as part of his obligation to strive for justice through all means. As a priest, he adhered to liberation theology with the firm belief in the cause of justice. Nevertheless, in 1985 the Vatican suspended him from saying Mass as a Catholic priest. The suspension was only lifted in 2014 when Pope Francis declared the suspension was unfair and announced, through Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, that Father Miguel would again be able to say Mass with the blessing of the Catholic Church. This meant much to Father Miguel who had remained committed to his faith.

As Foreign Minister of Nicaragua, Father Miguel is perhaps most well-known for initiating successful legal proceedings against the United States before the International Court of Justice. In 1986, the Court in one of its leading opinions held that the United States had violated the Charter of the United Nations’ most fundamental prohibitions on the use of force and non-interference in the internal affairs of other States by its actions against the Sandinista government. To this day, this decision remains one of the most important decisions of the International Court of Justice.

In May 2008, Father Miguel was nominated to serve as the 65th President of the United Nations General Assembly. His term ran from September 2008 to September 2009. During his term, he raised the profile of the United Nations’ most senior post to a level of respect it had rarely enjoyed or has enjoyed since. During his term, he led efforts to confront the cause of the international financial and economic crisis; to recognize the need to respect Mother Earth; to redress the injustices being done to the Palestinian people; to expose the hypocrisy of the Responsibility to Protect as a pretext for intervention; and to re-create the United Nations to enable it to achieve the mandate given to it by international law.

The Palestinian people will likely never forget his efforts to take action during Israel’s unlawful and deadly aggression against Palestinians in Gaza in December 2008. After the Security Council refused to take any action to protect Palestinians being slaughtered by Israeli warplanes, Father Miguel convened a session of the General Assembly that condemned Israel’s use of force. At the same time, he also spoke out in the most unambiguous terms against Israel’s aggression.

Father Miguel was willing to speak truth to the most powerful countries, including the United States, whose violations of international law he strongly condemned. Throughout his term as President of the General Assembly, Father Miguel continued to condemn the ongoing violations of international law by the United States, especially its inhumane treatment of the Iraqi people. Father Miguel arduously urged both the United States and the Iraqi government to respect the Opinion of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that had found the detention of Tariq Aziz to violate both country’s international obligations and had called for his release until his death in 2015. While the United States was able to cower many senior statesmen from much larger and more powerful States, it was never able to intimidate Father Miguel who pushed back against this hegemon’s violations of international law using the dictates of law and justice.

His efforts to revitalize the United Nations are documented in a book entitled Recreating the United Nations that was published in 2009. It included the idea that the Charter of the United Nations should be revised to remove the authority of the world body to authorize the use of force. This, believed Father Miguel, would force the world body to rely on its diplomatic means without subjecting it to the pressure of a few powerful countries seeking to use the UN as cover for their military interventions. In the book, he also suggested creating an international climate and environmental justice tribunal with authority similar to the International Court of Justice, to make legally binding decisions that could ensure States respect the Mother Earth. Today this recommendation looks increasingly necessary if States are to restrain themselves from destroying life on our planet. In his book, he also urges that the term of the President of the General Assembly, the most senior executive UN official, be made longer than that of the Secretary-General, the UN’s most senior administrative official, in order to reflect the seniority of the former post.

Throughout his life, Father Miguel was a friend of civil society. As President of the General Assembly, he initiated the practice of meeting with NGOs during his visit to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and he always remained open and willing to support civil society initiatives. Until his death, he served as the President of FUNDECI and on the Advisory Board of International-Lawyers.Org.

Father Miguel was a rare person who possessed the highest degree of integrity while also having the courage to act on his beliefs. He refused to be cowered by power exercised in the name of hegemony and refused to remain silent or passive when the dictates of justice require his voice be heard or that action be taken.

WHO’s Reality Check: The Election of a New Director-General for the World Health Organization

Three WHO DG candidates
Dr. David Nabarro, Dr. Sania Nishtar, and Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

On 23 May 2017, the World Health Organization (WHO) will choose its next Director-General at the 70th Session of the World Health Assembly (WHA70), the plenary body of the organization in which all 194 Member States are represented. For the first time, the WHA70 will be making the real decision, which in the past was left to the 34-Member Executive Board meeting the January prior to the WHA. This change is due to election reforms that were called for by the Member States, mainly the developing States, who felt disadvantaged by the old system that for example, had contributed to preventing an African from ever holding the post of Director-General at WHO.

While the process will be the most transparent ever in the 70-year history of the organization, nevertheless it is still one that defies adequate public scrutiny and therefore remains wide-open to abuse that may lead to the decision being made based on politics rather than based on the candidates’ qualities. Below each of the candidates is briefly described and then the election process is examined. Finally, some brief comments are made about what to expect on 23 May when the WHA70 chooses a new Director-General for WHO.

The Candidates

Despite the lack of transparency of the process, there are three competent candidates are left vying for the WHO leadership after the Executive Board cut the field in half in January 2017 by eliminating three candidates, including two former ministers and the only internal candidate. The remaining three candidates, Ethiopian Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, British subject Dr. David Nabarro, and Pakistani Dr. Sania Nishtar all have redeeming qualities that would serve them well in the post. They all have the ability to lead WHO, but each offers very different strengths and weaknesses.

          Dr. Tedros

Dr. Tedros, the name he goes by, is not a medical doctor but has extensive training in public health at British universities. His first degree is in biology, his Masters from the University of London is in Immunology of Infectious Diseases, and his Doctorate in Community Health is from the University of Nottingham.

His greatest advantage is his public service. He has served Ethiopia as Minister of Health for seven years and as Foreign Minister for the better part of four years. After he left the post of Foreign Minister, he has continued to serve his country as a presidential adviser even as he is campaigning for the WHO post. It is particularly his efforts as Minister of Health that earned him accolades from both foreign and domestic observers. He focused on health systems building, not merely temporary solutions. He is the only candidate with experience running a large organization anything like the size of WHO. It is, therefore, likely that he will get the votes of States that are concerned about putting the global health agency in untested hands.

He is also the only one who may be able to find the funding WHO needs because of his close relations with some of WHO leading donors. Despite his being the African candidate American millionaire Bill Gates, an advisor to the wealthy Norwegian government, and, a former United Kingdom secretary of the Department for International Development, have publicly supported Dr. Tedros for the post. This contrasts with UK candidate, whose government announced that it will cut its contributions to the WHO. It is also a factor that makes Dr. Tedros the front-runner going into the 23 May election.

But Dr. Tedros he doesn’t come without liabilities. His curriculum vitae for the post oddly lists Minister of Health as his first job. This seems to confirm the claims of his domestic critics that he is a political insider who may be too beholden to his government. It has also led to a campaign being launched by civil society actors, some with the apparent support of his British opponent Dr. Nabarrro, to implicate Dr. Tedros in human rights abuses in his country. The complaints range from his failure to speak out against the slaughter of almost 150 protesting Oromo’s in early 2016 to his alleged coverup of infectious disease outbreaks in Ethiopia.

Despite these criticisms, Dr. Tedros has maintained a good repertoire with many States, the only entities that vote. In fact, perhaps more than any candidate he has focused on speaking to the Member States at the most senior levels. Moreover, he is not only the sole African candidate in the race, but he apparently has solid backing from the African States and the African Union as a whole. He would be the first African to occupy the post in the 70-year history of the WHO.

Nevertheless, Dr. Tedros will have to watch his back as especially the United Kingdom have a record of playing dirty tricks in collaborating with the United States, to prevent an African candidate from being elected (see below). Indeed, just a week before the election emails from Dr. Nabarro to WHO and UN staff emerged in which it is clear that staff at both Un family organizations are involved in supporting his campaign in violation of both WHO and UN staff responsibilities pertaining to the election of the heads of intergovernmental organizations in the UN family.  Included on the list of email recipients, although the full emails were blacked out in the publicly released version of the email, is allegedly staff in the office of the current Director-General.

          Dr. Nabarro

Dr. Nabarro, the British candidate, likes to say that he has been training for this job all of his life. Indeed, he has an impressive list of degrees that date back to when Dr. Tedros was still a youth. After training in Animal Physiology and Biochemistry, he acquired a Masters’ degree in Medicine, a Medical Degree, and a Masters’ in Public Health, all from British Universities. As a physician, he is also a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of London and on their Faculty of Public Health Medicine. He has worked for grassroots medical organizations that intervened in countries in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. He spent nine years at the UK aid agency and five in middle-level WHO positions before moving to the UN in New York to hold a series of prestigiously-titled posts. He was Special Envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General on Ebola where he coaxed the UK and other governments into a ‘quick in, quick out’ aid effort in West Africa. He has also been Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Food Security and Nutrition and Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Climate Change.

While the titles Dr. Nabarro has held in recent years sound prestigious, most close UN observers, including the world’s organization’s Member States, know that those posts come with scant resources and have provided few tangible accomplishments. Moreover, when put on the front line in global health crises, Dr. Nabarro record is at best mixed and sometimes he appeared to literally fumble the ball rather than show a steady hand. As probably the most knowledgeable medically trained person in UN Headquarters during the outbreak of cholera in Haiti, instead of advising the UN to own up to its having exposed hundreds of thousands of Haitians to the deadly disease, which has now killed almost ten thousand people, Dr. Nabarro supported the UN’s coverup. His record as Ebola envoy during the West African crisis was somewhat better, but his ‘fast in, fast out’ manner of dealing with the crisis left the West African States as exposed to the deadly disease after it had been contained, as before the 2014-2015 crisis began. It was only with the development of a new vaccination in the past year under WHO’s guidance that another Ebola epidemic might be prevented and Dr. Nabarro had little to do with his effort.

Perhaps more detrimental to Dr. Nabarro’s chance of becoming the next Director-General is the fact that he is a national of a State that is a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council. Usually, the States that are a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council do not put candidates forward for the top post at the UN or WHO. This was pointed out by the UK’s former secretary of the Department for International Development, Mr. Andrew Mitchell, in an article he wrote in The Guardian newspaper on 27 April 2017, in which he endorsed Dr. Tedros for the WHO post. One reason for the unspoken rule against ‘Permanent Five candidates’ is to prevent the appearance of the arrogance of power. This is a trait, however, that many former WHO staff and others who have worked with Dr. Nabarro say is a feature of his character and may explain his willingness to buck the rule. Also damaging to his chances may be the recent revelations of Dr. Nabarro’s failure to respect the integrity and independence of UN and WHO staff by including current staff in his campaign activities.

          Dr. Nishtar

Dr. Sania Nishtar is the Pakistani candidate for the post. She is the only women left vying to replace a woman. As the only female candidate for what is often understood to the be second highest staff post in the UN system family, she has the support of States who in vain tried to put a woman in charge of the United Nations for the first time during the section of its Secretary-General in 2016. The ‘gender card’ is something that appears to have particularly endured Dr. Nishtar to some North American and the Nordic States. Ironically, it is usually coupled with a concern for women’s reproductive rights, something that she is unlikely to champion as Director-General given her strong ties with her own country, Pakistan, that holds a rather restricted view of such rights. Dr. Nishtar also has the support of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), although this likely does not include the significant number of African OIC Member States that appear more committed to the African candidate.

Dr. Nishtar is a physician trained in Pakistan and the UK, and like Dr. Nabarro, she is a Fellow of Royal College of Physicians of London. She is also a Member College of Physicians and Surgeons of Pakistan. In addition to a medical degree, she also obtained a Ph.D. in medicine from the Kings College London. Her reputation as a writer on health issues has often been touted as one of her strongest characteristics during the campaign.

Dr. Nishtar is also a civil society candidate having worked most of her life with the NGO she set up with the assistance of her family’s wealth and a broad range of connections. While she worked for about a decade as a medical doctor, she appears to have channeled her family’s wealth into Heartfile, an NGO that she founded. Heartfile appears to have morphed from a health information organization to a health policy think-tank to serve her interests in competing for the WHO post. It did this with significant funding from the Clinton Global Initiative of former U.S. President William Clinton. Dr. Nishtar has spent most her career working with this NGO, although she frequently mentions the fact that she was a government interim minister for about two months.

Despite being ostensibly a civil society candidate, she has secured strong support from the government of Pakistan, which nominated her early in the process. This support makes her somewhat unique among the three candidates. While Dr. Tedros can order his State’s support because of his senior status within the Ethiopian own government, which he still serves as a Presidential Advisor, and Dr. Nabarro seems to be struggling to get his government’s full support, Dr. Nishtar seems to have genuinely enthusiastic support from her government.

Dr. Nishtar is by far the most curious candidate. Part of the reason for this is her rise from relative obscurity and part is the often-unchallenged hyperbole she used to make the ascent. Most notably the written curriculum vitae she submitted after the Pakistani government nominated her for the post of WHO Director General in early 2016, insinuates that she was Minister of Health by stating that she was responsible for health. Both the insinuation that she was Minister of Health as well as that she was responsible for health, however, appear to be untrue. She was Minister of Education and Training, Science and Technology, Information Technology and Telecommunications, all areas for which it is hard to find a capacity to lead WHO. Furthermore, according to her own written statement made at the end of her short tenure, she was neither Minister of Health nor responsible for health. It is perhaps not a good start to a campaign when a candidate to lead an intergovernmental organization attempts to mislead its Member States on her job application.

Moreover, no matter how she spins her qualifications Dr. Nishtar has never led an intergovernmental organization. She has never even worked full-time for an intergovernmental organization. She has also never raised or handled the funds for any large intergovernmental entity. Her international experience is based on her having served as a volunteer on several boards that meet infrequently, and perhaps, on her use of her own family’s significant wealth in promoting her own NGO. While NGOs relish the chance of a real outsider coming into to WHO the shake-up and re-enthuse the organization, it is hard to see States voting for to put WHO in such inexperienced hands. Nevertheless, if States want new blood in the WHO while still being able to maintain close control over the organization, Dr. Nishtar’s lack of experience may be something they value as it will enable them to manipulate the Secretariat. This is something that may endure her to them on 23 May.

* * *

Undoubtedly, all three candidates possess some redeeming qualities that could make any of them good Director-Generals, but it may not come down to qualifications. Instead, past practice in WHO has shown that the ability to manipulate the process may be of much greater value. In this respect, not all candidates have the same capacity to control the playing field and that is what may ultimately rule the day on 23 May. The reasons for this relate to the WHO procedure that will be followed in choosing the next Director-General.

The Procedure

The election of WHO’s Director-General will be made by its 194 Member States, minus any States that are too far behind in paying their assessed contributions, behind closed doors and by secret ballot. Rather than being an example of transparency and global democracy as is increasing being required in a globalized international community, the Member States of WHO opted for secrecy that again allows backroom and under-the-table deals. Through this opaque process, the Member States will elect a new Director-General either in one round of voting whereby one candidate receives a two-thirds majority, or, in successive rounds whereby one candidate either achieves a simple majority or one candidate is eliminated until one achieves a simple majority of the States present and voting.

WHO had the intention to take advantage of new technology and to use electronic voting. When tested, however, the newly installed system did not work adequately and the idea of electronic voting had to be scrapped. This is not the first time WHO seemed to be stymied in its transition to modern technology. At the Executive Board meeting in January 2017, the accreditation of some NGOs was significantly delayed because of a faulty online accreditation system. The system failed to display a button on computer screens that allowed for submitting accreditation requests after the required information had been entered. Although WHO admitted the flaw, repeated requests for an explanation and assurances of a fix that were made to the Assistant Director-General for General Management, did not even receive a reply. Apparently, WHO was so befuddled by its own technological gaffs that it didn’t even know how to respond. Such ostrich-like reactions do not bode well for the possibility that WHO might have had to react to a technology glitch in the voting procedure. Perhaps, therefore, the decision was made to keep voting as simple as possible.

As noted above, to vote States must have paid their annual assessed contributions, although in some cases this may mean that other States have paid the assessed contribution for a particular State. There is a suspicion that some West African States with close ties to the UK might have had assistance in paying their dues with the condition being imposed that they vote for a particular candidate. Guinea and Liberia, the former, which just recently paid its dues, have been suspected of such agreements by some NGOs who have been observing the process. To vote, States must also have a duly accredited representative present in the room when the voting takes place and that representative must cast his or her vote by walking to the podium in the front of the room when the name of their State is called, and deposit a paper ballot into a transparent ballot box. That the voting-receptacle be transparent as due to a request by the African States. Nevertheless, the transparent voting box will provide little means of controlling whether a States votes in accordance with the promises of its officials, its commitments to regional and international organizations, or even the instructions of the highest government officials in its own State.

When former Prime Minister, Minister of Health, and renown Mozambican pediatrician Dr. Pascoal Mocumbi competed for the post, the U.S.  and its allies colluded to ensure he was not chosen, apparently fearing a socialist leaning Director-General. This case dates back to the election of Director-General Lee in January 2003. Dr. Lee was elected after well-respected Director-General Dr. Gro Brundtland decided not to compete for a second term. The more well-known African candidate was eliminated by the U.S.  and its allies coaxing several African States into putting forward candidates with lesser credentials than Dr. Mocumbi. Nevertheless, the presence of multiple African candidates divided the continent’s votes and allowed the less-known Asian candidate from South Korean to triumph.

To address this, African States pushed for changes to how the Director-General would be chosen during Dr. Lee’s term, which was cut short by his sudden death while in office. The movement to reform the election process continued into Dr. Margreet Chan’s term. It was during this time that it was agreed to make the process more transparent and that geographical distribution would be a consideration for choosing the next Director-General. The notion of considering geographical origin is only generically reflected in the resolutions reforming the election process. Moreover, the implementation of these resolutions was strategically delayed by Dr. Chan, the second successive Asian candidate, until after she had been confirmed for her second term without a challenger. Nevertheless, to any credible observer who had stayed up until the late-hours of the to witness the debates on the reform of the WHO election process, it was clear that what was really being agreed was that the next Director-General would be from an African country as long as at least one credible African candidate was put forward.

Africans delegates to the WHA70 who remember the debacle surrounding the elimination of Dr. Mocumbi might be concerned that there seems to be little institutional memory of this gentlemen’s agreement. Moreover, both the UK candidate and another Asian candidate, have, of course, done their best to ignore this not so distant history of the election of the WHO Director-General.

What to Expect

While all three candidates have been intensifying their efforts to gain the support of each of WHO’s 194 Member States that will vote at WHA70, at this point any rationale prediction would have to favour Dr. Tedros. His African support has been steady and his support among the Group of 77 and the BRICS appears to be solidifying. Even his distractors such as the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada appear to inadvertely acting in his favour as their ploys to promote other candidates appear to be driving States towards the African candidate. Moreover, few States appear willing to endure the ignominy of being dubbed racist if they again for the seventieth year of WHO’s existence pass-over a qualified African candidate.

Nevertheless, games are being played in the waning days of the race. The United Kingdom government has threatened to cut its funding to WHO, a hardly veiled threat to encourage States to vote for their candidate, Dr. Nabarro. A supporter of Dr. Nabarro also published allegations that Dr. Tedros was covering up serious health concerns in his own country. It was later reported that this person, despite his earlier claims to have been acting independently, was working on Dr. Nabarro’s election team. Moreover, a leaked email implicated several WHO staff, apparently including those in the Director-General’s own office, as being intimately involved in Dr. Nabarro’s election campaign in contravention of WHO and UN staff responsibilities regarding the campaign.

At the same time, Dr. Tedros has felt obliged to resort to an U.S. publicity agency to tidy-up his image and refute claims that he supported human rights abuses by a government he twice served as a minister and still serves as a senior adviser. He also enlisted a team of American-Ethiopian campaign managers, including a former campaign officials who worked on U.S.  President Barak Obama’s successful campaign to become the U.S.  President. This resort to Western tools has ruffled the support of some African States, but seems to have been accepted as a necessary step to address the efforts of the UK candidate especially with memories of what happened to Dr. Mocumbi still in the minds of some African leaders.

And even Dr. Nishtar, who hails from civil society but enjoys the strong support of her government and the marginal backing of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, has felt it necessary to stretch the truth about her own experience. She has also solicited a lengthy list of individual supporters ranging relatively unknown figures to leaders in global health, but few governments have expressed their support for her. Rumours have also been rife that she and Dr. Nabarro have an agreement on shifting support to the other if one of them is eliminated in a first round of voting.

In the end, despite the election reforms implemented by WHO there seems to be ample space for manipulation of the voting, especially if no candidate gets the two-thirds majority of votes required to win in the first round. Rumours that the United Kingdom has been pressuring States through a wide-variety of means have especially fanned fears of election manipulation. For, sure, like many things in international diplomacy, the appearances at the WHA70 are likely to be deceptive. The closed nature of the process is but the darkest omen. WHO still appears to lack the resources, the normative framework, and perhaps the will to ensure that the election of its Director-General is based on the quality of the candidates, instead of invidious politics. Perhaps this will ensure that the organization itself and those it serves are the biggest losers on 23 May, no matter who wins.


By Curtis F.J. Doebbler, Research Professor of Law at the University of Makeni, Sierra Leone; Visiting Professor of Law at Webster University Geneva, and a keen observer of the WHO election process for more than three decades, currently with the NGO International-Lawyers.Org.

Ramsey Clark: US Aggression Against Syria is Not the Right Action

Source: DigitalGlobe/Courtesy U.S. Department of Defense. via Reuters

The United States aggression against the people of Syria is as much an affront to human rights and humanitarian values as it is to international law and standards of common decency.

I have visited Syria numerous times over the years, including several times during the current violence in the country. As a lawyer, I have also represented the Syrian government in the United States courts. As an American, and former Attorney General of the United States, I have many Syrian friends and great respect for the Syrian people. My heart goes out to the Syrians who were killed by this meaningless bombing of their country and to all the Syrians who were terrorized by this unwarranted act of aggression. It is especially sad that the majority of those killed have been reported to be civilians, among them four children. We killed more than a half million children in Iraq, do we not learn from our horrific mistakes.

There is no reason why we should continue to allow the tragedy that has been happening in Syria. No doubt the violence in the country is wrong, but it is the government of Syria that has the responsibility to end this violence. Our actions, instead of helping the Syrian government to end the violence, contribute to continued and heightened violence. We have long known that violence is not defused by more violence.

It is my hope that U.S. President Trump will act with more respect for the law and for human life. The illegal bombing of a foreign country in its first one hundred days in office sets a very bad precedent for a new administration. The United States should set a good example for the world by abiding by international law and by using the law to help end the violence in Syria and restore the government of Syria to control of the country. Even when peace is achieved—as it is being achieved by Syria with Russia and Iran’s help—the United States can continue to encourage social and economic development and human rights in Syria, but through cooperation, which I am sure will be much more effective. Aggression, on the other hand, usually leads to the greatest violations of human rights.

In my trips to Syria, the people of the country and its government have always shown me the utmost respect, I would hope that we would do the same for the Syrian people and their government in their own country. If we do, I am sure we will find some very good friends.

​Curtis Doebbler: The United States’ Use of Force Against Syria Violates International Law

Bolivian Ambassador to the UN Security Council reminds the Member States how the United States government lied about Iraq and may doing so again to justify bombing Syria.

Source: UN Webcast

The United States’ use of force against the sovereign state of Syria is a prima facie violation of international law. It is an act of aggression against an UN Member State in violation of the Charter of the United Nations. It therefore gives Syria the right to react in self-defense or a legal justification for the use of force. It also gives any other UN Member State the right to act in collective self-defense and to support Syrian action against the US. This is the basic understanding of the international legal consequences of the United States’ use of force against Syria.

An analysis of the US use of force must review the known facts and the applicable international law. The position of US law, while relevant to Americans, has little to do with the evaluation of international law. National law can never be a justification for a violation of international law. Similarly, national emotions, even the emotional concerns of a US President, cannot justify the actions of the US government that are inconsistent with international law.

The Facts

The United States launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Al-Shayrat Airfield in Syria from a warship based in the Mediterranean Sea starting at 3:42 a.m., local Syrian time, in the early morning of Friday, 7 April 2017. Each Tomahawk cruise missile carries over 1000 pounds of conventional explosives. The United States based television channel CNN not only reported the air strikes, but also showed videos of the missiles being launched from an American warship that it claimed were the missiles used in the attack. United States President Donald Trump admitted that his government launched this armed attack against Syria and he bragged about it in a way that indicates that it may launch further attacks. He stated that the attack was based on a “vital national security interest” of the US and called on “all civilized nations to join us [the US] in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria. And also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.” He went on say “[w]e ask for God’s wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world…[and]…[w]e pray for the lives of the wounded and for the souls of those who have passed and we hope that as long as America stands for justice then peace and harmony will in the end prevail.” Ironically, the very Syrian base that was bombed was very much engaged in action against non-State actors that the US government itself has labeled as terrorists organizations. 

  1. At approximately 6:45 a.m. Washington, D.C. time, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also acknowledged that the US had used force against Syria. He said the use of force was a retaliation for a chemical weapons attack. The same justification was given by the US Permanent Representative to the United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who claimed the armed attack on Syria, another sovereign Member State of the UN, was justified by a chemical weapons attack that took place in Syria. She also stated that the US is “prepared to do more” to the UN Security Council. And she claimed that Russia and Iran has been complicit in the chemical weapons attack.

Syria has also publicly acknowledged that it has been attacked and that it has suffered material damage to its infrastructure and military assets as well as human casualties. Syria reported that eight civilians were killed, including four children. In addition, five Syrian soldiers were killed. At the time of the attack, Syria was engaged in an armed conflict against non-State actors who were using of force against the sovereign government of Syria. Both the government of Syria and the non-State state actors had been accused of committing violations of international law in the conduct of the armed conflict. The armed conflict also involves other States such as Iran and Russia, both of which had been asked to assist the government of Syria in restoring control over the country. 

International Law 

Even before the 7 April attack, the US and its allies from Europe and Saudi Arabia, among others, had been assisting non-State actors in their use of force against the government of Syria, including by providing soldiers who were combatants in the armed conflict. Such participation in an armed conflict by uninvited States, supporting the use of force against a sovereign Member State of the UN, is a violation of international law prohibiting interference in the domestic affairs of States. Such interference was strongly condemned by the International Court of Justice in 1986 in the Case Concerning the Military and Paramilitary Activities in and Against Nicaragua between Nicaragua and the United States. The Court found such action to be illegal. Thus, the US and its allies were already engaged in illegal action against Syria even before the US conducted the 7 April armed attack.

Both Syria and US are Member States of the United Nations and therefore both States are legally bound to the obligations in the Charter of the United Nations, which by virtue of its article 103 takes precedence over all other legal obligations they may have. Article 2, paragraph 4, of the Charter prohibits in, relevant part, the “use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” The only justifications for the use of force are self-defense or when the use of force has been authorized by the UN Security Council. 

Self-defense may only be used as a justification for the use of force, when a state has been subject to an armed attack. The necessity of satisfying the condition of having been subject to an armed attack was made clear by the International Court of Justice in the already-mentioned Nicaragua Case. This interpretation is also consistent with the object and purpose of the Charter of the United Nations, which is to prevent the use of force and ensure the peaceful co-existence of States. The requirement that the use of force in self-defense be proportionate is only irrelevant if the requirement of an armed attack has been satisfied. In this case, the US is not alleging that Syria attack the US or threatened to do so. In this case, there has been no authorization by the UN Security Council.

The US government has publicly claimed that its use of force against Syria is in response to Syria’s use of prohibited chemical weapons in an attack in the Idlib Province of Syria near the village of Khan Sheikhoun. Syria has denied that it used chemical weapons. The area in which the attack took place is under the control of the non-State actor, the Al-Nusra Front, which the US and the UN have labeled a terrorist organization. The US government’s claim that Syria used chemical weapons was being investigated by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ (OPCW) Fact Finding Mission at the time of the US attack against Syria. The OPCW Fact Finding Mission has stated that its investigation was ongoing and that it was not yet able to attribute responsibility for, or even confirm that, chemical weapons were responsible for the injuries that the US government claimed took place near the village of Khan Sheikhoun. 

The Russian government, which is closely cooperating with Syria, has stated that it does not believe that the government of Syria used chemical weapons. The government of Russia issued a statement indicating that the injuries from chemicals appear to have been sustained by individuals under the jurisdiction of the non-State actors that are using force against the government of Syria because a Syrian attack hit a depot holding chemical weapons smuggled into the country by the Al-Nusra Front. If this is correct, the non-State actors who had chemical weapons, and the States supporting them, may be responsible for the injuries caused by the release of toxic chemicals from chemical weapons. Moreover, the Russian intelligence, which has been consistently more reliable than that of the US or other Western States, has stated that less than half the 59 cruise missiles fired by the US hit the targeted airfield. This supports the Syrian government’s claim that most of the casualties were civilians.

Legally, the US government’s claim that Syria used chemical weapons is irrelevant to a consideration of the use of force and its legal justification for the use of force. Even if true, the US’s use of force is inconsistent with international law and gives rise to the State responsibility of the US for an internationally wrongful act. A retaliation by one State against another State, which is alleged to have violated international law, may not involve the use of force unless is in response to an armed attack. In this case, no armed attack took place against the US, therefore there is no justification for the use of force by the US. When there is no justification for a violation of international law then a State is responsible for the consequences of an internationally wrongful act.

The consequences of an internationally wrongful act include that a State must bring its violation of international law to an immediate end, provide assurances that it will not reoccur, and provide reparations to the injured State. It appears that the US has ended its legal use of force for the time being, but the US has not provided assurances that it will not act illegally again in the near future. In stating to the UN Security Council that the US is “prepared to do more,” Ambassador Nikki Haley, made a representation on behalf of the US that could be construed as a threat to use force against the people of Syria again in the future. This would itself be an additional violation of international law because threats to use force are also violations of international law, according to article 2(4) of the UN Charter. 

Additionally, the US government has not offered any reparations to the people and government of Syria. In this case, reparations could run into the billions of dollars given the serious nature of an illegal use of force against the people of Syria and the irreplaceable loss of life.

In addition, because the use of force is a very serious violation of international law, other States must refrain from recognizing the situation created by the illegal use of force. States that support or recognize the situation created by the illegal use of force by the US government may themselves be violating international law. In this regard, the public statements of the Turkey, Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, Saudi Arabia, and Israel should be noted. It is also relevant to note that the leaders of Bolivia, Venezuela, China, Iran, and Russia have condemned the US’s use of force as illegal.

Perhaps more importantly, the US government’s apparently illegal use of force against constitutes an armed attack against Syria that provides a justification for the use of force against the US in self-defense. Moreover, other States, if requested, may act in collective self-defense to support action taken by Syria against the US. Thus ironically, the US aggression against the people of Syria serves as a justification of the otherwise unlawful use of force against American citizens and US military assets. This escalation of the use of force and this possible spiral of violence are exactly what the Charter of the United Nations was intended to avoid. 

Russia has called for a UN Security Council meeting to consider the US use of force against Syria because it believes it violates the UN Charter. This Russian action is consistent with the UN Charter and the use of its mechanisms that are intended to prevent and address the illegal use of force. One would think that such an initiative would be welcomed by other Member States of the UN and used as an opportunity to condemn an illegal use of force. If this does not happen, then the illegal use of force by the US government may merely be another shameful event in the already checkered reputation of the UN.

In 2001, the US government attacked Afghanistan destroying the country and leaving it in shambled to this day. In 2003, the US government attacked Iraq leaving it devastated. And in 2011 the US lead its NATO allies into battle against the people and sovereign State of Libya that turned the richest country in Africa—a country with free education and health care—into a failed State whose resources are being plundered by the victors. Together a reliably estimated 3 million people died in these armed conflicts which were initiated by the illegal use of force and the meddling of foreign States in the internal affairs of the countries concerned. In these cases, nothing their leaders had done in decades before the US attacks could have matched the inhumanity left behind from the US use of force. In the aftermath of these tragedies, Syria is perhaps the most significant rebuttal to the mantra that might makes right. As such, Syria may be one of the last chances for the international community to show that it is a community based on the rule of international law and not on the mere whims of men. 

April 2017

*Dr. Doebbler is a Reseach Professor of Law at the University of Makeni in Sierra Leone, visiting Professor of Law at Webster University Geneva, and the Vice-President-Secretary of International-Lawyers.Org.

Ramsey Clark: ​An Imperative for Humankind

More than seventy years after the United States used the first nuclear weapon against the people of Japan, killing hundreds of thousands of people in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear weapons remain the most violent threat to humankind.
In 1996 the International Court of Justice responded to a request for an Advisory Opinion by indicating that while it could not say nuclear weapons were generally prohibited by international law, the fifteen judges could not think of an instance when their use would be consistent with international law. Moreover, the Court interpreted article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty to require the good faith negotiation of disarming nuclear weapons. Despite this authoritative interpretation of a treaty that is legally binding on 190 countries, the United Nations Conference on Disarmament has failed to make any meaningful progress. For years, the Conference, which is the main negotiating forum for nuclear disarmament, has been unable to adopt an agenda. Thus, nuclear disarmament negotiations have not even started. This is not fair to humankind. Unless our diplomatic representatives can find the courage and common-sense to rid the world of nuclear weapons the threat of their use will plague humanity as the deadliest immediate threat to world peace. We need to urgently move forward with the negotiation of nuclear disarmament.

Some progress has been made on banning landmines by the adoption of the Ottawa Treaty in 1997 and its subsequent ratification by almost 170 States. But this progress is limited by the fact that this treaty deals only with anti-personnel mines and not anti-tank of other more powerful types of mines. Similarly, the United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms has focused on the illegal trade in small arms, but not the legal sale of small arms nor their proliferation in many societies. Since 2013 about 80 Member States of the United Nations have become party to the Small Arms Trade Treaty, but some important countries, such as the United States have not joined the treaty. These treaties should be strengthened and their membership enlarged to include all countries. It is shameful to argue that human being have a right to carry weapons that can be used to massively slaughter other human beings. We must end this foolish interpretation of our right to bear arms and replace it with our commitment to the human right of all people to live in peace.

It is imperative that all States recommit to disarmament, which is stated in the Charter of the United Nations as one of the purposes of the United Nations in article 1, paragraph 1, which states that “The Purposes of the United Nations are …. [t]o maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace…”. 

The negotiations going on at United Nations Headquarters in New York until July 2017 are a timely opportunity for our political leaders to send a message of their commitment to peace. Adopting an agreement to ban nuclear weapons, even if nuclear weapon possessing States won’t join it right now, is the right thing to do.

It is our obligation and responsibility to ensure that we do everything in our power to ensure that those currently inhabiting the planet as well as future generations will be able to live in a world where they are not threatened by weapons, especially nuclear weapons. It is my hope that we will act without delay. The accomplishment of peace is the greatest gift that we can leave to future generations.

January 2017

Ramsey Clark: Farewell to a Friend and a Liberator

Fidel Castro was a friend and leader who really cared for his people. He was a man that I had known for almost half a century. A liberator who freed his people from tyranny.
I saw how he was overwhelming loved by his people. The several times I traveled with him through Cuba he was be mobbed by people expressing their admiration for him. I have never seen the same affection expressed for any American President. 

When I visited Fidel we would talk into the early hours of the morning about his political philosophy, what he had read—sometimes with the authors—and what could be done to improve the lives of people by providing them the necessities of life. 

Until very recently, I visited Cuba every year since the early 1970s. The first time I visited Cuba was with my parents staying in Havana at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in 1936. During the 1940s and 1950s I saw Cuba’s social problems mounting as economic and social differences accentuated. Fidel saw this as well and he acted to liberate his people from the tyranny of an elite class that had dwindling concern for the people of Cuba. 

Fidel’s greatest accomplishments included his liberation of his people from a historical tyranny, his commitment to protecting the public health, his efforts to export health care workers to help others, and his efforts to ensure access to education to all. 

You could find medical teams from Cuba all over the world and they were darn good doctors.

The schools, universities, medical clinics and hospitals in Cuba, and those run by Cubans who had been sent abroad by the government, were among the best in the world. 

In South America and Africa, countless people in owe their healthy lives to Fidel’s commitment to improving health and education around the world. I have traveled to isolated areas in South America and Africa where I would find highly-qualified Cuban doctors working for the people.

Fidel will be missed as a friend, not only by me, but by his people and by the countless number of people whom he helped.

December 2016