Last Friday, Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, finished his visit to the UK. In his end-of-mission statement, he savaged the government’s performance on poverty. Key concerns included shortcomings in the functioning of universal credit, the dismantling of the broader social security net through wide-ranging cuts to services, and the disproportionate impact of fiscal austerity on socially vulnerable groups.
Oxfam is in serious difficulties. It is reasonable to speculate that the hard time it is being given by the international development secretary, Penny Mordaunt, is due to the workings of Miles’s law - 'Where you stand depends on where you sit' – in that it reflects forces in the British government and the Tory party hostile to the foreign aid programme. I sit as a microbiologist, and see the harmful events in Haiti following the arrival of foreigners after the 2010 Port-au-Prince earthquake very differently, both from a quantitative and from a political point of view.
Over the last three years, the United Nations has been working to establish a global sustainable development agenda to succeed the eight Millennium Development Goals, which are about to expire. Unlike the MDGs, which were drawn up by bureaucrats behind closed doors, the new Sustainable Development Goals have been subject to the largest consultation in UN history. Negotiators came up with 17 goals and 169 targets covering everything from abolishing poverty to achieving gender equality to rescuing the planet from climate catastrophe. They are due to be adopted at a UN summit in New York in September. In Addis Ababa last month, member states met to agree on ways to pay for them. The cost of achieving the SDGs is estimated at between two and three trillion dollars a year for fifteen years: roughly 15 per cent of annual global savings, or 4 per cent of world GDP.
Amid little anticipation and less expectation, the United Nations special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, on Tuesday, 17 February, briefed the Security Council on the progress of the initiative he unveiled last year to ‘freeze’ the conflict that has destroyed the country, extinguished perhaps 1 per cent of its population and displaced more than a quarter of the remainder. It would be an exaggeration to say that hubris has given way to humility, but his performance this week was considerably more subdued than four months ago, shortly before I resigned from his office within weeks of arriving.
The double veto cast by Russia and China blocking the draft Security Council resolution on Syria provoked a chorus of international outrage. William Hague called it ‘cold-blooded cynicism’. Hillary Clinton said: To block this resolution is to bear responsibility for the horrors that are occurring on the ground in Syria. The US, the UK and France may be lamenting the use of the veto this month, but they have never shown any interest in scrapping or even amending it. Though occasionally inconvenient, it gives the five permanent members of the Security Council (P5) privileges too great to rescind, regardless of its detrimental effect on the UN's efficiency or the consequences for victims of atrocities.
Mahmoud Abbas’s address to the United Nations General Assembly on 23 September fell considerably short of Yasir Arafat’s electrifying 1974 speech from the same podium. Nor did it compare with Haidar Abdul Shafi’s dignified – and unanswerable – call for justice at the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference. Yet it may come to be seen as a historic turning point in the fortunes of the Palestinian people. Abbas’s agenda was transparent. He was sending the Americans a message: grow a spine, stop appeasing Israel and launch credible negotiations – because if you don’t, my next failure will be my last. There are several problems with his approach.
Among the many astonishing claims that Barack Obama made in his recent speech opposing the Palestinian bid for statehood was that ‘peace will not come through statements and resolutions.’ This is, at best, an odd thing to say for a president whose ascendancy to power itself depended on the compelling use of rhetoric. Indeed, his argument against the power of statements and resolutions at the United Nations to achieve peace was a rhetorical ploy that sought to minimise the power of rhetorical ploys. More important, it was an effort to make sure that the United States government remains the custodian and broker of any peace negotiation, so his speech was effectively a way of trying to reassert that position of custodial power in response to the greatest challenge it has received in decades. And most important, his speech was an effort to counter and drain the rhetorical force of the very public statements that are seeking to expose the sham of the peace negotiations, to break with the Oslo framework, and to internationalise the political process to facilitate Palestinian statehood.
More from Uri Avnery on the UN vote on Palestinian statehood:
Many aspects of the Libyan situation remain unclear: the scope of the mandate given to UN member states by Security Council Resolution 1973, the broader aims of the intervention, how many civilians have been killed and by whom, and who the rebels represent. One thing, however, seems clear: the international intervention is considered to be legal. International lawyers have agreed with the UK government’s advice that Security Council Resolution 1973 ‘provides a clear and unequivocal legal basis for the deployment of UK forces and military assets to achieve the resolution’s objectives’. Legal experts have been quick to suggest that Resolution 1973 gives authority for any action thought necessary not only to protect civilians, but to protect areas inhabited by civilians. The constraints imposed on Libyan forces are similarly radical and far-reaching, going well beyond the obligations imposed by general international law on governments responding to insurgencies. The resolution demands ‘the immediate establishment of a ceasefire and a complete end to violence’, and bans all flights in Libyan airspace unless their sole purpose is ‘humanitarian’. If the expansive authority granted to international forces and the novel obligations imposed on Libya by Resolution 1973 are sanctioned by international law, what kind of law is this? And does it deserve our fidelity?
The Libyan dictator is resisting the popular forces ranged against him in ways that his counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt did not. In Tunis and Cairo, Zine Abedine Ben-Ali and Hosni Mubarak were the faces of military regimes. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is not the face: he is the regime. The Egyptian and Tunisian army chiefs calculated that sacrificing their nominal commanders-in-chief would preserve their own positions without jeopardising the interests of their American benefactors. Playing the role of saviours of the nation, after years in which the officer class enriched itself and ordinary soldiers were made to repress dissent, the armies in Tunisia and Egypt emerged as arbiters of whatever order will follow the post-dictator era.
The National Rifle Association, which likes to describe itself, apparently without irony, as 'America's oldest civil rights organisation', recently held its annual convention in Phoenix, Arizona.