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.
United States Assumes Conference on Disarmament Presidency
On Monday, the United States assumed the Conference on Disarmament presidency. U.S. Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament Robert Wood has since hosted an address by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, met with members of the Lima Group alongside Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance Yleem Poblete to discuss the situation in Venezuela, and attended a rally against alleged anti-Israel bias at the UN. The UN-sponsored Conference on Disarmament is the only permanent multilateral body for negotiating arms control agreements, and in recent years, the body has struggled to reach consensus.
On Tuesday, Assistant Secretary Poblete’s remarks called out Russia’s violation of the INF Treaty, China’s “ongoing nuclear build-up,” and Iran’s nuclear missile program. She also criticized Venezuela and Syria and lamented the Commission on Disarmament’s descent into deadlock. Poblete also accused Russia and China of behaviors contributing to an arms race in space. (Meanwhile, the UN hosted government experts from 25 countries this week in Geneva to discuss how to prevent an arms race in space.) Wood praised her speech as “hard-hitting.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov presented at the Conference on Wednesday. He pointed to the INF Treaty impasse as indicative that the time for bilateral arms control treaties between the United States and Russia has passed and instead pushed for multilateral arms control efforts. Foreign Minister Lavrov further criticized, in his view, the increasing role of politics in the body, saying “there have been attempts by certain countries to introduce storylines at these forums that serve no other purpose but to get back at the countries they don’t like.”
UN Officials Prepare for April’s National Conference on the Future of Libya
On Wednesday, Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) Ghassan Salamé briefed the UN Security Council on the upcoming National Conference on the future of Libya, which will take place from April 14-16 in the southwestern city of Ghadames. It is yet to be seen whether powerful parties will attend the Conference. Since late dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011, the country has been “languish[ing] under warring militias, economic misery, and aloof elites.” In February, Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, head of the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, and Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army in the country’s Eastern half, met in Abu Dhabi and agreed that Libya should be a democracy with peaceful transitions of power and a civilian-controlled army.
The upcoming National Conference will tackle three key issues: (1) the draft constitution produced by the Constitution Drafting Assembly, (2) the National Charter that resulted from the National Conference consultative process, and (3) the shape of future elections, which could be simultaneous parliamentary and presidential elections or phased elections.
Libya’s factional leaders have met continually in recent years but have time and again failed to put into action the plans they have made. It remains to be seen if April’s National Conference will be any different, especially considering Haftar’s propensity for military rather than diplomatic solutions. UNSMIL Head Salamé suggests the difference this time around is the parties’ sincerity.
UN Rights Chief Criticizes Sanctions Against Maduro’s Government
In a joint press conference with Brazil’s far right President Jair Bolsonaro, President Trump announced on Tuesday that the United States could impose tougher sanctions on Venezuela if necessary. He also reiterated that “all options are open” in dealing with the Venezuelan crisis, which in the past has referred to the possibility of military intervention. Meanwhile, Elliot Abrams, the Trump administration’s special envoy to Venezuela, met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov in Rome to discuss the situation in Venezuela, but the parties left at an impasse. The Kremlin has vigorously supported Maduro, including providing desperately needed financial resources.
Against this geopolitical backdrop, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former president of Chile Michelle Bachelet gave her first oral update on the crisis in Venezuela to the UN Human Rights Council. She criticized recent crackdowns by Maduro’s pro-government forces and also raised concerns that U.S. sanctions may have an outsized effect on Venezuelan citizens. She is particularly concerned about sanctions directed at state-run oil company PDVSA, which the United States has targeted in an effort to cut off Maduro from oil revenues. U.S. officials have pushed back on the suggestion that its sanctions are negatively impacting the Venezuelan people. As Guaidó and Maduro vie for power, international recognition, and effective control over Venezuela, the Venezuelan people are suffering violence and mass shortages of food and medicine.
UN Commission of Inquiry Calls on Israel to Intensify Investigations
On Monday, the UN Commission of Inquiry officially presented its 252-page report to the UN Human Rights Council and urged Israel to step up its investigations into last year’s deadly flare-up along Israel’s fence with Gaza. In late March 2018, Israeli troops fired on Palestinian protestors, killing almost two hundred and injuring thousands. Investigators believe these actions may have risen to the level of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Israeli government has criticized the report as factually and legally inaccurate. As the Human Right Council heard the Commission’s report, hundreds of Israel supporters gathered outside to protest the body’s alleged anti-Israel bias. Several U.S. officials attended the protest, including the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell.
UN Secretary General Calls Climate Change the “Defining Issue of Our Time”
In his remarks to the Second High-level United Nations Conference on South-South Cooperation in Buenos Aires this week, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres highlighted climate change as a major global challenge that the world is failing to adequately address. He plans to hold a climate action summit in New York in September, and he is “calling on leaders to bring concrete, realistic plans that raise ambition on mitigation, adaptation, finance and innovation.”
The Secretary General’s statement was delivered in the midst of the devastating Cyclone Idai that has taken lives and wrought mass destruction on Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi—it is potentially one of the worst natural disasters in the area in “living memory” with flooding so bad that some places have come to look like an “inland ocean.” Thousands have been forced to relocate as their homes washed away. The UN estimates potentially 1.7 million people were in the cyclone’s direct path and has allocated $20 million in emergency funding. Presently, the UN is imploring the global community to offer support and aid. Experts are pointing to climate change as the cause of Cyclone Idai’s unprecedented severity.