Editors’ Note: This is the latest in Just Security’s weekly series keeping readers up to date on developments at the United Nations at the intersection of national security, human rights, and the rule of law.
Trump’s Search Continues for a U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations
Last weekend, State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert withdrew her name from consideration to be the next U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, although President Trump had never formally nominated her for the position. A recent report from Foreign Policy outlined four potential contenders for the job. The first, Kelly Craft, is the current U.S. Ambassador to Canada and was recently involved in renegotiating NAFTA into the “United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.” Foreign Policy reports that she “is close to” Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump (her husband is billionaire coal magnate and Republican donor Joe Craft). The next candidate, Richard Grenell, is the current U.S. Ambassador to Germany. He immediately ruffled feathers as ambassador after tweeting that German companies should “wind down” operations in Iran in response to President Trump announcing U.S. withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal (Germany and all other participants remain in the Deal). The third candidate, Dina Powell, is a partner at Goldman Sachs and a former Trump Administration deputy national security adviser. The final candidate, John James, is a veteran and former Republican Senate candidate with limited diplomatic experience.
Acting U.S. Ambassador to the UN Jonathan Cohen, who has served in this role since January 2019, will continue to represent the United States until a replacement is confirmed. His tenure marks a period of diminishing U.S. influence in the United Nations as other P5 powers, namely Russia and China, take advantage of the lack of a confirmed U.S. Ambassador. There has been speculation that the position may lose cabinet-level status in Trump’s Administration. Consequently, the next U.S. Ambassador will likely wield less power and influence than former U.S. ambassador Nikki Haley and her predecessors in the Obama Administration.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko Addresses UN General Assembly
On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Poroshenko addressed the UN General Assembly and met with UN Secretary General Guterres to discuss the war in eastern Ukraine. February 2019 marks five years since “little green men” appeared in Crimea, leading to Russia’s purported annexation of the peninsula and the outbreak of an ongoing armed conflict in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Tensions recently climaxed in November 2018 when Russia fired on Ukrainian vessels in the Sea of Azov, taking dozens of Ukrainian sailors prisoner.
At the UN, President Poroshenko called on Russia to release Ukrainian hostages and prisoners of war and requested the formation of a multinational UN peacekeeping force with “a clear objective to end the Russian aggression and restore Ukraine’s sovereignty.” Ukraine has been in support of UN peacekeepers deploying along the Ukraine-Russia border—not along the line of contact. Russia supports a circumscribed peacekeeping mission only to protect monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in eastern Ukraine.
Until now, negotiations to resolve the war in Ukraine have taken place without UN involvement, led instead by the Normandy Four (France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine) and the Trilateral Contact Group (comprised of representatives from Ukraine, Russia, and the OSCE). Last week, senior officials told the UN Security Council that these negotiations have lost momentum. The largely unimplemented 2015 Minsk agreements remain the only agreed upon framework for peace in Ukraine, and UN officials said “additional measures that would make the ceasefire sustainable and irreversible” are urgently needed.
UN officials also emphasized that civilians are paying the highest price in this war. Since the conflict began in 2014, 3,000 civilians have been killed and nearly 9,000 injured. U.S. Acting Ambassador Cohen emphasized the United States will accept nothing less than restoration of Ukraine’s full territorial integrity. “The international community should remain united in support of Ukraine and impose costs on Russia for these attempts to undermine Ukraine,” Cohen said. Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia rebuked President Poroshenko and suggested his General Assembly speech was a campaign stop ahead of Ukraine’s March 31 presidential elections. He declared Crimea unequivocally part of Russia and blamed Ukraine for the Minsk agreements’ failed implementation.
Stockholm Agreement Implementation Advances in Yemen
Over the weekend, there was a “breakthrough” in talks between Yemen’s government and the Houthi rebels regarding troop withdrawals from the vital port city of Hodeidah. The first step of this redeployment plan involves withdrawal from Saleef and Ras Isa followed by withdrawal from Hodeidah. This fulfills a key provision of the December 2018 Stockholm Agreement and is a big step toward its full implementation. UN Envoy Martin Griffiths said this agreement would allow focus to shift to reaching a political solution in Yemen.
This withdrawal comes over a month later than the original deadline in early January 2019. However, it could bring desperately needed food and medical supplies to millions of people. Hodeidah is home to multiple grain storage sites, which the World Food Program (WFP) uses as its main storage and distribution facility. Due to the conflict, the WFP has been unable to access these sites since September 2018 and the grain is in danger of rotting. The first phase of the agreed upon withdrawal will hopefully restore access to these vital resources, which hold enough grain to feed 3.7 million people for a month, according to UN Envoy Martin Griffiths.
UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock also reported to the Security Council on Tuesday on the worsening humanitarian situation in Yemen and emphasized that although violence has decreased in Hodeidah after the Stockholm agreement, it continued and even escalated in other parts of Yemen. Next week at a conference in Geneva, the UN is expected to ask for an additional $4 billion to deliver humanitarian aid to Yemen, where 80 percent of the population (24 million people) is in need and 3 million people are malnourished.
ICJ Rules on U.S. Preliminary Objections in The Certain Iranian Assets Case
On February 13, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague ruled that it has jurisdiction over at least some of the claims brought by Iran against the United States in an effort to recover billions of dollars in assets allegedly seized in violation of international law. In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a statute allowing these assets to be used as compensation for victims of terrorist attacks, including the 1983 Marine Corps base bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, who had won default judgments against Iran for its alleged role in the attacks. Chimène Keitner explained the pending case in a recent piece for Just Security:
In the Certain Iranian Assets case, Iran alleges that the United States has violated provisions of the 1955 Treaty of Amity between the two countries by allowing private lawsuits to proceed against Iran for injuries resulting from acts of international terrorism, and by allowing attachment of property of certain Iranian state-owned companies (including the Central Bank of Iran, also known as Bank Markazi) to satisfy default judgments obtained in these lawsuits.
The Trump administration announced its withdrawal from the 1955 Treaty of Amity in 2018, but this withdrawal is not retroactive. Chimène Keitner explained the question before the ICJ as follows:
At this threshold stage, to show U.S. consent to jurisdiction, Iran argued that all of its claims are based on alleged violations of the Treaty of Amity, which contains a dispute resolution clause that gives the ICJ jurisdiction over disputes about the Treaty. The U.S. countered that Iran was invoking the Treaty as a pretext to get the ICJ involved in a dispute about the customary international law of foreign sovereign immunity, and that Iran’s claims fall outside the scope of the Treaty.
In total, the United States raised five objections, and a single, crucial one was sustained: the ICJ does not have jurisdiction to hear claims based on the customary international law of state immunity. In the present case, this means the ICJ cannot hear Iran’s claims that the United States violated its sovereign immunity—the core of Iran’s case. Nevertheless, the remaining Iranian claims will continue to the merits stage.
Increased Attacks and Civilian Casualties in Idlib Alarm UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet expressed concern about increased violence in Idlib, a city in northwest Syria. She called on parties involved to ensure civilians and civilian infrastructure are protected, as required by international humanitarian law: “The principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution must be fully respected, and military objects must not be placed in the vicinity of civilians.”
She also expressed concern about families currently held hostage by the Islamic State and exposed to intense U.S. coalition airstrikes. The BBC reports that not long after these comments, a convoy arrived to help extract these families from ISIL-held territory.
UN Experts Report Potential War Crimes in South Sudan
On Wednesday, UN investigators reported gross human rights violations in South Sudan and potential war crimes. Sexual violence and rape are on the rise, and impunity remains the norm. The report identified the oil industry as a key driver of violence. Investigations have also examined UN peacekeeper abuses in the region. In 2018, 18 alleged perpetrators from the UN Mission to South Sudan were registered in the UN Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Database. The investigators will ultimately turn over three case studies documenting suspected war crimes to the Rights Commission in Geneva. The situation in South Sudan is worsening in spite of a peace agreement signed just five months ago, ending a years-long conflict between President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar and their respective followers.