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An air of busyness fills the conference chamber of the United Nations in Geneva. Arabic dances past French on the escalators, as delegates from the UN Missions and from accredited NGOs go from meeting room to meeting room, with an occasional stop at the café that overlooks the beautifully appointed Ariana Park. The Palais des Nations was built in the 1930s to house the League of Nations, the ill-fated body that was swept away by the second European war. When the United Nations was formed, the Palais became its second home, after New York City. Bizarrely, Switzerland only joined the UN in 2002 (many things puzzle one about Switzerland, such as women only got the right to vote in 1971).
Building E in the Palais is marked by its era, namely the 1960s. One room, the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilization Room was recently redecorated with money from the Spanish government. It is where the Human Rights Council meets. The temperature around the room was white hot in the first days of December. The Council was discussing Syria. The European Union with pressure from the United States had called for the special session (the Arab League was also there, playing a similar role as with Libya). The resolution that came to the table seemed photocopied from the UN resolution on Libya: it called upon the Secretary General of the UN to take “all necessary measures” to support the Arab League’s posture against Syria. Thirty-seven of the forty-seven countries on the Council voted for the measure. That Russia and China joined Cuba and Ecuador to vote against the resolution means that there is no chance of a UN Security Council resolution that would authorize military intervention. The Russians and the Chinese worried of “unforeseen and very serious consequences” if such an intervention took place.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, took a strong stand against Syria, warning that the State’s “ruthless repression, if not stopped now, can drive the country into full-fledged civil war.” Unlike with Libya, Pillay did not use the word “genocide.” As I trolled the hallways a serious diplomat said that his government would not allow itself to be used as it had over Libya. For some, the Libyan adventure presents a Model for intervention; for others it is an example of being taken for a ride.
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Elsewhere in the building, delegates sat as if paralyzed in a meeting on climate change. This meeting was being held concurrent with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP-17) conference in Durban, South Africa. No agenda seemed possible in either Durban or Geneva. The situation was so bleak that Dr. Kosi Latu, a leader of the small island states, complained about the direction of the debate. Of course, he said, development, poverty reduction and building green economies should be on the agenda, “but for us in the Pacific, it’s more than that. I’m talking about the survival of our peoples in the sense that due to climate change impacts, we stand to lose our land, our histories and cultures, our nationalities.”
Geneva, on December 1, seemed extraordinarily warm to me. There was no sign of snow, and little chill in the air. Would a warm Europe mean the submergence of more small islands? Last year, the Bay of Bengal Island (which India calls New Moore Island and Bangladesh calls South Talpatti) vanished. As India and Bangladesh quarreled about names and ownership, the ocean reclaimed the land. The UN predicts that at current rates about seventeen percent of Bangladesh will similarly be lost, with twenty million people displaced. The UN has been hampered on the climate refugee front on two grounds. The first is empirical with a 2005 predication that there might be fifty million such refugees by 2010 come to naught (the UN has now said that the real date is 2020). The second is political and it is derives fuel from the empirical errors. The Atlantic powers do not want to see the International Organisation for Migration increase their definition to include “climate refugees” and so to force the North to absorb more such asylum seekers in the future.
Martin Khor of the South Centre expressed guarded hope in Bonn earlier this year that some kind of framework might emerge out of the Durban meeting on climate change. Part of this hope seemed to come from his assessment that “Durban is the last chance to continue with the Kyoto Protocol without a gap,” for the United States seemed eager to let Kyoto lapse which would give everyone else less motivation to make any effort on reducing carbon emissions. With only five percent of the world’s population, the United States takes up a quarter of world’s energy consumption; absent serious reductions of carbon use in the U. S. means that any carbon policy for the planet will be seriously compromised. Egypt’s Ambassador in Geneva, Hisham Badr, who survived the Arab Spring to keep his old job, was much more despondent. No deal would be possible he said “short of a miracle or a last minute package coming down from a parachute.”
To “green” has come to mean nuclear and biofuels, geo-engineering and alternative oils (shale, tar sands) – it is the corporate capture of the Green idea. Much of this was on display. The level of mendacity is hard to measure or capture. For every bureaucrat there seemed to be a consultant, and one of these consultants told me that they want to “public-private” the Green business (with “public-private being a convenient cover for privatization,” he put it proudly). Consultants like to use nouns as verbs (what linguists call “verbing”). They see it as innovation and dynamism.
Obama’s top man at Durban, Jonathan Pershing sugarcoated the U. S. intransigence. “We are late in the game,” he said, “but we are doing real things to catch up” (such as auto emission standards and a smoke and mirrors energy efficiency policy). The crucial statement was that there are “infinite pathways” to a new deal on Climate, and these do not include carbon cuts before 2020. There was no talk of cap-and-trade, the summum bonum of liberal environmentalism. The 2020 date is convenient. It is after Obama’s putative second presidential term. He has effectively kicked the ball out of his own ballpark.
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An old UN hand once described the electric mood in the hallways in New York and Geneva when the Soviet Union was in existence and when the Non-Aligned Movement had energy. Ideological differences gave room for debate and disagreement. What you have now is sullenness with most of the world defensive and annoyed with the arrogance of the United States and the other members of the Group of Seven (mainly Britain and France).
In 1955, Time captured a sense of the diplomatic world of the Cold War, “Among the occupational temptations that befall diplomats is the desire to keep up appearances after it becomes impossible to keep up negotiations. Despite this itch to preserve a fictitious continuity, at certain moments in history pretense halts, and a cold finality can be plainly seen.” There is no such pretense today. The Cold Finality is the general condition of international diplomacy.
I was at a UN Special Session on the 50th anniversary of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). The NAM was founded in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1961 as the spear of the Third World Project. For its first twenty years, the NAM played a crucial role in building up the integrity of the United Nations and placing the NAM agenda of social development and peace on the UN’s central tables. Because of the Third World Project, the UN created the International Atomic Energy Agency (1957) and the UN Conference on Trade and Development (1964). These were crucial to the creation of a way for the vast mass of nations outside the Cold War between the West and the East. By the 1980s, and particularly after the debt crisis, the Third World Project collapsed and NAM went into a Rip Van Winkle sleep. It has not woken up yet.
A veteran of the NAM, Algerian diplomat Idriss Jazairy sharpened his rapier as he spoke at the Special Session. Current world powers, he stressed, have “distorted interpretations of legitimate international concepts.” In 1973, the Algerians proposed a radical measure, the New International Economic Order (NIEO), to reshape the political and economic policy between states. Jazairy was at that time the advisor to the Algerian president on International and Economic matters. NIEO was close to his heart. No wonder that it was Jazairy who told the gathering that the Third World’s thrust had gone from “seeking transformation to being told to be in compliance of norms.”
None of the Atlantic powers graced the room. They had made their peace with the UN. When Henry Kissinger gave Daniel Patrick Moynihan his brief for the UN post in 1973, he said, “We need a strategy. In principle, I think we should move things from the General Assembly to the Security Council. It is important to see that we have our confidence and nerve.” Kissinger wanted Moynihan to “get hold of the Specialized Agencies,” such as UNCTAD and UNESCO. When the UN General Assembly passed a resolution in 1975 arguing that Zionism is Racism, Moynihan used it to demonize the UN General Assembly (his memoir on his UN years is called A Dangerous Place). The U. S. proceeded to clean house, using its power to excise the NAM agenda from the UN agencies and cordoning off serious discussions from the General Assembly. The paralysis at the UN has been the greatest success of American imperial ambitions.
Inside the room for the seminar co-sponsored by UNCTAD and an NGO (the Energy Pact Foundation) a young Chinese diplomat, a lawyer by training, took extensive notes and expressed interest in the history that he did not otherwise know. Ambassador Sayed Mohammed Reza Sajjadi spoke at the opening panel as the incoming chair of the NAM, and for his presence the Iranian delegation stayed in the room. A bored-looking Saudi diplomat sat at one end, and an engaged young Algerian at the other. A few Asian representatives sat near a few African ones. The young man who represented the Holy See was poised, and well disposed to the humanist thrust in the room. A number of UN bureaucrats went in and out, and one of them, UNCTAD’s chief of the Unit on Economic Cooperation Richard Kozul-Wright offered a remedial introduction to the now submerged UNCTAD line that was first formulated by the remarkable Raul Prebisch in the 1960s. UNCTAD had warned against finance-driven globalization, he pointed out, and hoped for development-led globalization.
Stepping away from nostalgia was the Bolivian ambassador, Angélica Navarro Llanos, who provided a polished analysis of ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas). Ambassador Navarro indicated how much of the discussion about ALBA takes place around its political impact (this kind of thing was intensified the next day, when in Caracas Hugo Chavez spearheaded the creation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, a political alliance absent the United States and Canada that is designed to undermine the Organization of the American States). ALBA, Ambassador Navarro pointed out, also has an economic agenda – with the creation of the virtual sucre currency for cross-border trade and with the increase in mutual trade rather than reliance upon the United States and Europe for private final consumption (the Atlantic world accounts for two thirds of all such consumption, with China only able to absorb three percent).
The NAM is exhausted, but it is regional formations such as the ALBA and the new Community that offer a way ahead.
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Not often do I get to run into an Iranian diplomat. The attack on the British embassy in Tehran had just taken place. Michelle Bachmann had said that if she becomes president, she would close down the U. S. embassy in Iran (the U. S. has not had an embassy there since 1979). The diplomat looked puzzled when I asked him what he thought of Bachmann. “Who is she,” he asked? Who indeed.
VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Vijay is giving two talks next weekend: