Editor’s 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.
Saudi Oil Attack Escalates US-Iran Standoff With New Sanctions and Threats
A drone attack on two major oil facilities in Saudi Arabia over the weekend has raised already high tensions between the United States and Iran. While Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the attack, both Saudi Arabia and the United States have blamed Iran. On Wednesday, President Trump ordered new Iran sanctions. Iran responded with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif saying they were ready to fight an “all-out-war” until “the last American soldier,” if Saudi Arabia or the United States struck his country.
Iran has denied responsibility for the weekend attack, which severely damaged Saudi Arabia’s oil production capabilities, and insisted that the Houthis are responsible. Iran has backed the Houthi rebels, providing them with both weapons and training. Experts have commented that the sophistication of the Saudi oil attack exceeds that which has been typical of the Houthis, suggesting—but far from confirming—Iran or another country’s involvement. However, U.S. and Saudi officials have been more far more decisive in laying blame with Iran. On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia presented pieces of drones and missiles to bolster its claim that Iran was behind the attack and accused the Houthis and Iran of presenting a “false narrative.” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of committing “an act of war” the same day.
President Trump announced he would impose further penalties on Iran, tweeting on Wednesday that he had “just instructed the Secretary of the Treasury to substantially increase sanctions on the country of Iran!” Meanwhile, Pompeo appeared to be trying to build an international coalition against Iran, describing the attack as “a true test of international will to confront sabotage that threatens international security and stability.”
Escalating tension, the United States delayed granting the Iran delegation the visas necessary to attend the UN General Assembly summit next week. On Wednesday, Iran said their ability to attend the conference was in doubt because of the United States’ refusal. Pompeo said: “We don’t talk about the granting or absence of granting of visas.” He added, “I would say this: if you’re connected to a foreign terrorist organization, it seems to me it would be a reasonable thing to think about whether they ought to be prevented to attend a meeting which is about peace.” However, on Thursday, Iran’s former minister tweeted that President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif were set to leave for New York.
UN Kicks Off 74th General Assembly Session With Focus on Climate Change
On Tuesday, the UN officially opened the 74th session of the General Assembly with climate change dominating the show. Five major summits are already set for the month of September, setting the General Assembly’s focus for the upcoming year, including: the High-Level Midterm Review of the SAMOA Pathway, High-Level Dialogue on Financing for Development, Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Summit, and the first High-Level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage. However, the summit that has earned by far the most attention is the Climate Action Summit, starting September 23.
On the opening day of the 74th session, UN Secretary-General António Guterres stressed in an interview that climate change posed an “emergency” and that countries need to do more “[b]ecause we are losing the race.” To incentivize countries to step up their climate change commitments, Guterres has made clear that speaking slots at the summit will only be granted to those who either: (1) vow to be carbon neutral by 2050; (2) “significantly” increase their emission cuts; or (3) make a “meaningful” contribution to the Green Climate Fund, which helps developing countries ditch fossil fuels. Thus far, it means that the United States, Japan, South Korea, and South Africa are noticeably absent from the speakers’ list. “Only the boldest and most transformative actions [will] make the stage,” UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed said. “We will see on Monday who is stepping up.”
Nobel Peace Prize Winner Oversaw Massive Oppression of Muslims and Other Minorities, Says UN Report
In a report to the UN Human Right Councilthis week, a fact-finding mission tasked with investigating the Myanmar military’s treatment of the Rohingya found that hundreds of thousands are facing systematic oppression and “the threat of genocide.” While the military, known as the Tatmadaw, is responsible for the atrocities, Myanmar’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, is facing strong criticism for failing to take action. She has also overseen an increase in the number of people charged with defaming the military and other politically-motivated charges, according to UN expert Yanghee Lee.
The UN report detailed that Myanmar’s military has been responsible for driving some 730,000 people from western Rakhine state to Bangladesh through killings, arson, and gang rape. Another 600,000 Rohingya live in conditions that the UN panel—the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar—described as “deplorable” and include serious restrictions on their movement.
In 2017, the military led a crackdown against Rohingya Muslim insurgents, which the then-UN High Commissioner of Human Rights called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” The abuse and oppression has only continued, with the UN panel recommending this week that the state of Myanmar be brought before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and held responsible “under the prohibition against genocide and crimes against humanity, as well as for other violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law.”
“Myanmar is failing in its obligation to prevent genocide, to investigate genocide and to enact effective legislation criminalizing and punishing genocide,” said the panel’s chairman and former attorney general of Indonesia, Marzuki Darusman. “Impunity continues. Discrimination continues. Hate speech continues. Persecution continues.”
The panel has already recommended that army commanders and other top generals should face trial for genocide for their treatment of the Rohingya Muslims in 2017. However, with the ongoing abuse, there’s a new emphasis on holding Aung San Suu Kyi accountable, as well. “The longer this goes on, the more impossible it is for the civilian side of the government to escape international criminal responsibility for the human rights situation in Myanmar,” said panel member Christopher Sidoti.
China Backs Down from Threat to Veto Afghan Mission
After China had threatened to veto extending the UN political mission in Afghanistan, the UN Security Council unanimously agreed to its renewal on Tuesday. However, it came in a pared-down version of the original resolution that removes language addressing security, ISIS, and women’s rights. In the leadup to the vote, China had signaled that it would defeat the resolution because it failed to include references to Beijing’s Belt and Road infrastructure project.
Sometimes referred to as the New Silk Road, the Belt and Road infrastructure project was announced by President Xi Jinping in 2013 as a way to connect China both to the former USSR and to Southeast Asia through establishing railways, highways, and other transportation channels. More than 60 countries have agreed to participate in the project or shown interest in doing so, according to the Council of Foreign Relations. Many view the project as a way for China to increase its global power and influence, though, and China has succeeded in inserting language promoting the project in the 2016, 2017, and 2018 resolutions authorizing the Afghan mission.
Back in March, the United States and other members of the Security Council expressed concern with having explicit language about the Belt and Road infrastructure project. The US ambassador to the UN Jonathan Cohen criticized China for wanting to include the language, accusing Beijing of making the resolution “about Chinese national political priorities rather than the people of Afghanistan.” At that time, the UN adopted a six-month technical rollover to keep the mission operating.
The resolution that passed this week, which was drafted by Germany and Indonesia, was cut down from six and a half to two and a half pages, removing critical language on Afghan security forces, upcoming elections, and women’s rights. US ambassador Kelly Craftsaid she had hoped the Security Council would have passed a “stronger substantive mandate,” but doing so was eclipsed by “national political priorities, rather than ways which we can most effectively assist the people and government of Afghanistan.” The United Kingdom and Belgium made similar remarks of disappointment, according to the Associated Press.
Child Soldier Recruitment is on the Rise in South Sudan
A UN investigatory body warned this week that the recruitment of child soldiers in South Sudan has actually increased in the year since the country’s civil war ended. Yasmin Sooka, chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, said this week that “in many of the hotspots you are actually seeing an increase in child soldiers,” including both boys for the infantry and girls for forced sex and labor services.
“Ironically, the prospect of a peace deal has accelerated the forced recruitment of children, with various groups now seeking to boost their numbers before they move into the cantonment sites,” said Sooka. The potential for a new joint army may be perversely incentivizing recruitment with people hoping to be able to benefit from the disarmament program. “Once the selection process takes place for the unified army, the remaining ones who are not selected will be demobilised through the national disarmament, demobilization and reintegration committee (NDDRC) process,” Sooka explained, “so the incentives of being able to access [the] package may be an incentive to swell the numbers.”
With the increase in child soldiers comes an increased risk of South Sudan devolving into civil war. Sooka said, “I think in a country where the state doesn’t have control of vast parts of the region, if this thing [localized violence] doesn’t go down . . . you have the potential to see fighting breaking out in so many parts of the country.”