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02/28/2013

Syria keeps UN post in spite of diplomatic snubs

Bashar ja'afari at UN
Syrian Ambassador to the UN Bashar Jaafari at the U.N Security Council in New York Jan. 31, 2012.  The Arab League asked the council to adopt a resolution endorsing an Arab plan for  President Bashar Assad to transfer powers to his deputy. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Back in the day – the early 1990s – I shared an UN office with NPR’s veteran diplomatic correspondent Linda Fasulo, overlooking the Trusteeship Council.

To be honest, it wasn’t much of an office: more of a dank, closet-sized radio booth. But by then the council wasn’t much either. Conceived along the lines of the cavernous auditorium housing the UN General Assembly, it was draped in heavy velvet curtains that lent a musty Soviet air to the room, and prudently blocked one of the best views of New York’s East River, in case diplomats should be distracted from their duties by the sight of puttering pleasure crafts.

“When decolonization began,” Fasulo recorded in An Insider’s Guide to the UN, “most of Africa was controlled by a few Western nations, while the Netherlands, United Kingdom and France ruled large parts of Asia. Japan had ruled Korea for half a century.” And there were far-flung islands also under the stewardship of Western countries.

Not surprisingly, the curtain fell on the Trusteeship Council when the penultimate trustee territory, Palau, gained its independence in 1994.

But a vestige of anti-colonialism remains – the UN’s Special “Committee of 24” on decolonization, which keeps an eye on 16 “non-self-governing territories” like the Falklands, the British Virgin Islands, Gibraltar and the Western Sahara.

And who better to oversee their progress toward freedom and civil rights than Bashar Assad of Syria?

In one of those ironies that make the world body such an easy target for its foes, Assad’s envoy Bashar Ja’afari – a French-educated career diplomat --  was unanimously reappointed this month as the committee’s rapporteur, charged with upholding  democratic rights in the last outposts of colonial rule.

Assad’s regime – now in a war that has left 70,000 dead, and counting – has made much of the event, having few international plaudits to boast of. Predictably, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice called it “revolting and absurd,” and the Geneva-based UN Watch added, “indefensible and an insult to Syria’s victims.”

Ja’afari  is in good company at committee meetings. Among the 28 or so members are colleagues from Iran, Ethiopia, Russia, China, Cuba and Venezuela. How did they all get there?  Not, as some UN foes believe, because of a conspiratorial coup at the world body by human rights abusers. It’s a much more mundane combination of diplomatic entrenchment, laxity and cronyism that is endemic in its arcane system.

It allows regional groups to appoint their choices of committee candidates without going to messy elections. So the Old Boys Network works overtime, and democracy not at all. “Clearly, regional groups have fallen down on the job when they put forward embarrassingly inappropriate candidates to represent them,” an unnamed Western dip told the Washington Post’s correspondent and Turtle Bay blogger Colum Lynch.

Also clear: the embarrassing gap between the battlefield and the Diplomats’ Dining Room.

Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights as a correspondent and bureau chief from the former Soviet Union to the Balkans, Northern Ireland, the Middle East and South Asia. She has won both national and international awards, collaborated on two Emmy-winning films and is one of the few journalists to have a war requiem written to her work.  

       

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