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.
UN-Backed Syrian Constitutional Committee Begins in Geneva
On Wednesday, representatives of the Syrian government, opposition, and civil society commenced talks that will hopefully result in a new constitution. It marks the first time since the nearly decade-long civil war began that the Syrian government and opposition met together. It also reveals Russia’s influence in the region, as the country has emerged as a powerful force in negotiation talks.
One hundred and fifty delegates arrived at the United Nations in Geneva to start the Syrian Constitutional Committee. UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen opened the talks by noting it was “not easy for all of you to be together in this room.” However, he stressed how much potential there was for Syria in these meetings. “Today could become the beginning of something new, something meaningful for Syria and for Syrians everywhere. And this will be led by you, and you only,” Pedersen said. Syria’s civil war has claimed the lives of more than 370,000 people and has created 5.6 million refugees.
Pedersen has stressed that the talks are “Syrian-owned and Syrian-led.” However, Russian, Iranian, and Turkish representatives were in Geneva on Tuesday night to greet the delegates. Moreover, The Guardian reported that some of the delegates from both the government and the opposition flew in on Russian-chartered planes. While the UN Special Envoy is overseeing the talks, Russia proposed the 150-delegate meeting structure in January 2018, and “the idea was implicitly seen as Moscow’s alternative to the UN’s brokerage,” according to The Guardian.
After the initial talks among the 150 delegates, 15 people from each of the three groups—government, opposition, and civil society—will meet to begin the actual drafting. When possible the decision of the Committee will be by consensus, and if not, then the majority needs to secure 75 percent support.
Earning such strong majorities may prove difficult, as fighting still continues in the region. The talks are occurring as the Syrian army and the Turkish-backed forces battle in northeast Syria. Also, relations between the different groups remain contentious. According to a report from the BBC, the co-chairman of the government’s group, Ahmad Kuzbari, commended the Syrian army for its “sacrifices and heroic deeds” in the “battle to protect the state.” Meanwhile, the opposition co-chairman, Hadi al-Bahra, countered that “terrorism cannot be stopped with terrorism.”
Chile Bows Out of Hosting Critical UN Climate Conference
On Wednesday, Chile announced that it was unable to host the UN’s Climate Change Conference due to the major political upheaval in the country. Chile’s president, Sebastián Piñera, explained that because of the “difficult circumstances that our country has experienced” it would withdraw from hosting the climate summit, known as COP25, as well as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference.
“This is a very difficult decision that has caused us a lot of pain because we understand the importance that APEC and the COP have for Chile and for the world,” Piñera said. However, he noted that “[o]ur first priority as a government is to focus first and foremost on fully restoring public order and social peace.”
Weeks of violent protests have plagued Chile, resulting in several deaths, as well as vandalism and property destruction. According to Reuters, 7,000 people have been arrested and Chilean businesses have lost about $1.4 billion because of the protests. They originally began in response to a fare increase for Santiago’s subways. On Friday, October 25, Chile experienced its largest demonstration, with 1 million people protesting.
Scheduled for December 2 to 13, COP25 faces an uncertain future. “We are currently exploring alternative hosting options,” said Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Adding insult to injury, Chile’s announcement comes days before President Trump is expected to formally submit notice to the UN that it intends to withdraw from the Paris Agreement (the earliest date it can do so is Nov. 4), though the actual withdrawal will not go into effect until one year later, after the 2020 elections.
The APEC summit was scheduled for even sooner than COP25, November 16-17. Some viewed it as the place where the United States and China would end their months-long trade war, according to Reuters. Following Chile’s announcement, though, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said, “We look forward to completing phase one of the historic trade deal with China within the same time frame.”
Chile intended both COP25 and APEC to showcase its leadership on a global stage, but its international status may now be in jeopardy. Jorge Heine, former Chilean minister and now politics professor at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, told Reuters, “The credibility of Chile as a serious international actor and interlocutor has been compromised, and will not be easy to recover.”
UN General Assembly Battles Over Reports of China’s Abuse of the Uyghurs
On Tuesday, two groups went head-to-head in the UN General Assembly over China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, a largely Muslim minority in the Xinjiang region. China also issued a public warning to the United States, noting that any criticism of its alleged human rights abuse would hurt trade talks.
UK Ambassador Karen Pierce read a joint statement on behalf of 23 countries, including the United States, denouncing China’s reported treatment of the Uyghurs. She noted that the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination found “credible reports of mass detention; efforts to restrict cultural and religious practices; mass surveillance disproportionately targeting ethnic Uyghurs; and other human rights violations and abuses.” Pierce called on China to “uphold its national laws and international obligations and commitments to respect human rights.”
Shortly thereafter, Belarus made a counter-statement on behalf of 54 countries, including Russia, calling for a stop to the “baseless accusations against China.” It recast China’s actions against the Uyghurs as counter-terrorism efforts. “Now safety and security have returned to Xinjiang and fundamental human rights of people of all ethnic groups there are safeguarded,” Belarus Ambassador Valentin Rybanko said, adding, “We commend China’s remarkable achievements in the field of human rights.”
That same day, China’s UN ambassador, Zhang Jun, warned the United States that the Uyghur issue could derail any movement on trade talks. “It’s hard to imagine that on the one hand you are trying to seek to have a trade deal, on the other hand you are making use of any issues, especially human rights issues, to blame the others,” he said. “I do not think it’s helpful for having a good solution to the issue of trade talks.”
Independently of the United Nations, the Council of Foreign Relations reported that the Chinese government has arbitrarily detained more than one million Uyghurs in reeducation camps, where it has subjected them to torture, interrogations, and forced abortions.
UN Nuclear Watchdog Selects New Head
This week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) selected Rafael Mariano Grossi as its next director general. Grossi will be the first IAEA head from Latin America. He has been serving as Argentina’s permanent representative to the UN in Vienna since 2013. Before that, he was at the IAEA in the role of assistant director general for policy and chief of cabinet.
The IAEA’s Board of Governors voted 24-10 to elect Grossi in a closed session on Tuesday. The next day, in an open session, the Board of Governors appointed him by acclamation to the position. The other main contender for the position was Romania’s Cornel Feruta, who had been serving as acting director since the death of Yukiya Amano, the last official director general. Burkina Faso’s Lassina Zerbo, the executive secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, and Marta Ziakova, the head of Slovakia’s nuclear regulatory authority, were formerly contenders but had dropped out.
The biggest task facing Grossi when he begins his duties on December 3 is how best to monitor Iran’s nuclear activities following US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and subsequent Iranian announcements of resumption of certain nuclear-related activities in response to re-imposition of U.S. sanctions. In September, Grossi toldAFP, “My approach with Iran will be very firm but very fair.”
UN Secretary General Has “Taken Note” of Al-Baghdadi’s Death in U.S. Raid
The UN Secretary General offered a somewhat tepid response to the United States’ announcement of the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. On Monday, UN Deputy Spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had “taken note” of the news. Haq then stressed that the UN chief wanted the focus to be on victims of terrorism, saying ISIS “has committed heinous crimes and brought tragedy and death to thousands of men, women and children, and we should take this moment to remember the victims, and families of victims of terrorism everywhere in the world.”
At ISIS’s peak of power, al-Baghdadi controlled an area the size of Great Britain, and he had been the target of an international manhunt for five years, according to the New York Times. On Sunday, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that al-Baghdadi had died in a commando raid in northwestern Syria over the weekend, during which he detonated a suicide vest. Trump described al-Baghdadi as “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way” and offered numerous details of the account. However, the New York Times noted some have questioned those details. Others worry that his communications compromised sensitive information.
When reporters asked Haq why the Secretary-General was only “taking note” of President Donald Trump’s announcement of al-Baghdadi’s death, he stuck with the choice of words, but added “We’ve made clear any progress against Daesh [Arabic name for ISIS] is to be welcomed.”
IMAGE: UN Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen (C), Syrian MP Ahmad Al-Kuzbari (L) and Opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission Hadi Al-Bahra attend a ceremony to mark the opening of a meeting of the Syria constitution-writing committee on October 30, 2019 at the United Nations Offices in Geneva. (Photo by DENIS BALIBOUSE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)