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Monthly Archives: March 2012

From UN Immunity to License to Defraud

March 24th, 2012 - 10:21 pm

One of the most pernicious features of the United Nations is its diplomatic immunity. This is what lets the UN and its floating world of assemblies, agencies, diplomats and international staff get away with everything from running up $18 million in Manhattan parking tickets, to indulging in corruption, waste and abuse that carries no real penalty, even when outed in the press, or exposed in congressional hearings. When private companies embezzle millions, it’s a reasonable bet — at least in the U.S. — that someone will face charges, and maybe do jail time. When more than half a dozen major UN agencies involved in the UN’s Oil-for-Food program in Iraq stuffed their own administrative coffers with hundreds of millions of dollars meant to buy relief supplies such as medicine and baby milk, no one faced prosecution. The worst they got was an official tut-tut, and instructions for the agencies — including, for instance, UNICEF, the World Food Program and the UN Development Program — to cough up a small portion of the money.

True, diplomatic immunity has a time-honored place in important matters of actual diplomacy  (though at the UN, even that devolves quickly to such outrages as the annual visits of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Manhattan). But a great many of the more reasonable-sounding aspects of the UN have been over-run over the years by the astounding spread and sprawl of its globe-girdling bureaucracy. What began as a talking shop for diplomats in 1945 is by now a neo-colonial global empire, with its own envoys, outposts, and amorphous initiatives, moving money, personnel and equipment across borders, spending well over $30 billion per year of other people’s money — and draped in immunity. No big surprise that the UN is a chronic incubator of waste, fraud and abuse, which periodically erupts into scandal when details seep out. Yet pathetically little actually gets done about it, and very rarely is anyone punished.

All this makes UN-style immunity a highly attractive commodity. It’s a de facto license to fiddle and defraud, if you can get it.

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Oil Nationalization Day in Iran

March 20th, 2012 - 9:25 pm

Years ago, while traveling in Latin America, I took part in one of those games with which people amuse themselves while waiting eternally in dysfunctional airports for flights that seem to have vanished into the bureaucratic ether. I offer here a somewhat cleaned up version of the premise. The game was simply, without deviating from the truth, to complete the sentence:

You know you’re in a messed-up country when…

Some of the offerings were, for instance: You know you’re in a messed-up country when… the airport tax is denominated in dollars, and payable only in dollars… you’re willing to get up half an hour earlier just to leave that much sooner…

Here’s an entry from today’s news. You know you’re in a messed-up country when..one of the national holidays is Oil Nationalization Day.

So it is with Iran, where state seizure of the oil industry in 1951 provided the pleasure at the time of dislodging British control of Iranian oil production. But government monopolies on oil are dangerous; that’s a big reason why OPEC, most of its members freighted with state oil companies, is such a nest of despotisms. State authority combined with enormous oil wealth flowing easily into state coffers is a mix that invites and fuels dictatorship. There is less need for rulers to to negotiate a social contract that might allow enough freedom to yield a healthy tax base; wealth simply flows from the ground, to be dispensed in the form of patronage as the state chooses. Witness the history of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, of Soviet Russia, of Qaddafi’s Libya, of Saudi Arabia, of Equatorial Guinea … and Iran.

Thus do we arrive at March 20th. You know it’s a messed-up country, when… well, here’s Iran’s PressTV celebrating Oil Nationalization Day.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage assembled from multiple Shutterstock.com images.)

Mexico for Spring Break

March 20th, 2012 - 3:48 pm

It’s not actually about the First Daughter, per se, who according to serially vanishing stories has been vacationing with a group of friends in Mexico — a country for which the State Department just last month issued a new warning to all U.S. travelers.

It’s about the judgment of the White House, which apparently deems there is “no vital news interest” to this story.

How so?

Let us set aside the obvious hypocrisy of a president who denounces the “1%” and calls for Americans to tighten their belts, while members of his own family summer on a Martha’s Vineyard estate, spend Christmas beachside at Oahu, and travel for fun to the ski slopes of Colorado, the luxury suites of Marbella, and now, scenic spots in Mexico. If that is the image Obama wants to cultivate, or those are the family pleasures with which he wishes to balance the rigors of his presidency, so be it.

Let us set aside, for the moment, the queasy feeling it brings, reminiscent of the air-brushed politburo photos of Mao’s China, to see news stories erased, one after another, at the behest of the White House. Doubtless there are security concerns here. Though, especially in the information age, it suggests an odd obliviousness to think that an optional holiday, entailing security concerns presumably serious enough to warrant erasing news stories, should not qualify as a legitimate story.

Let us even set aside the cost to taxpayers of dispatching Secret Service agents — reportedly, 25 of them — to Mexico, not for official White House business, not for something that clearly benefits belt-tightening U.S. taxpayers, but for the pleasure trip of a family member. There is a case to be made, persuasive or not, that the presidency should not be such a burden as to preclude whatever the first family can manage in the way of reasonable socializing and entertainment.

Let us also set aside any tut-tutting about parental discretion in letting teenagers travel to places under a travel warning from the State Department. The First Family is in a good position to weigh the risks to its members, and is doubtless well acquainted with the first-rate competence of the Secret Service to provide security, which, when factored into the equation, presumably goes far to lower the risk for the vacationing First Family member.

But that brings us to the risks faced by those traveling secret service agents — whether 25 in number, or whatever the precise total might be. Yes, their job is to protect the First Family, and that includes taking a bullet or laying down their lives, if need be, to ensure that not a hair on a First Head is harmed. We can expect to hear no complaints from the Secret Service. But those Secret Service agents quite likely have families, too. They have now been dispatched to do their job not within U.S. shores where American authorities have enormous powers to minimize the risks, nor in a place which the State Department at least regards as routinely secure for Americans to amuse themselves on spring breaks.

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U.S. Diplomatic Mystery Solved, Alas

March 15th, 2012 - 1:00 pm

Yesterday I put up a PJMedia post asking where were America’s diplomats when the UN Human Rights Council unanimously adopted a report, earlier in the day, that praised the human rights record of Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya? The U.S. holds one of the 47 seats on the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, but the monstrous work of fiction presented as a UN report on Libya was adopted with not a single dissenting vote. (Actually, it didn’t look like there was a vote at all — the report was simply adopted, at a brisk clip, with no call for a vote, in a sparsely filled chamber.)

So, where were America’s diplomats? Hasn’t the Obama administration argued that it’s worth legitimizing the Human Rights Council with a U.S. presence, because what we will get in return is the chance to reform the Council, through “engagement”?

It turns out the U.S. did have a delegate there, at least at some point. I flagged my post to Hillel Neuer at Geneva-based UN Watch, the monitoring group that broke the news yesterday of this latest abuse by the UN of its own mandate as a guardian of human rights. He sent back a note that the U.S. did make a statement about this report, and he sent me a copy, which the U.S. Mission to Geneva has since posted — you can read it, in all its brief and upright splendor, here. The statement does urge the new authorities in Libya to adopt various definitions and laws abolishing torture, and so forth. But it says nothing — zip, zero, nada — to correct the shameless lies in the report, which it turns out the U.S. not only approved, but applauded. The U.S. statement begins by welcoming the new, post-Qaddafi Libyan delegation to the Human Rights Council, and then immediately goes on to say the U.S. “congratulates Libya on the adoption of its UPR working report.” (“UPR” stands for Universal Periodic Review, which is the UN process that produces these reports).

It seems our diplomats at the Human Rights Council dare not speak the truth, even when faced with a stack of lies about a dead dictator who terrorized and murdered untold numbers of his own countrymen, as well as some of ours. Is America’s position at the Human Rights Council so utterly precarious that our diplomats dare not demand the UN tell the truth about such things? Was there no room to insert in that short U.S. statement one more sentence, to the effect of: “In the name of the freedom-loving American people, some of whom are right now dying for that cause in foreign lands, we deplore and object to a report stuffed with lies that lavish praise upon the ‘human rights’ record of Muammar Qaddafi, and until these sections are stricken from the document, we will not approve it.”

Or perhaps, as “engagement” proceeds in practice, diplomatic etiquette outranks truth and American principles. Today, another monitoring outfit, New York-based eyeontheun.org , released a video showing some of the praise lavished at the UN Human Rights Council on Qaddafi’s human rights record. The video ends with the note that the post-Qaddafi delegation of Libyan diplomats now being congratulated at the Human Rights Council on the birth of a new Libya are the same envoys who represented Qaddafi when the report praising him was put together. Was the aim to avoid offending them, even if that required the sacrifice of American integrity and dignity? You can find the video here, on youtube.

So, mystery solved. When the Human Rights Council adopted that disgrace of a report on Libya, America’s diplomats had not, in fact, been carried off to Mars, or wandered off to the Alps. Neither were they all awol at the cafes of Geneva. There was at least one American delegate taking part in the shameless doings in that chamber. Alas.

Incredible. Why did the U.S. do nothing? Did men (and women) from Mars come down and carry off the entire American delegation to the United Nations in Geneva?

But I’m getting ahead of the story.

From UN Watch, the stalwart Geneva-based monitoring group that keeps a close eye on the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council, comes news of the latest UN mockery of human rights. UN Watch reports that the Human Rights Council has just unanimously adopted a report praising the human rights record of none other than the late Libyan tyrant, Muammar Qaddafi.

This report was part of the Universal Periodic Review process with which the “reformed” Human Rights Council is supposed to assess, in rotation, the human rights records of all UN member states. This is, of course, the UN we’re talking about; so there is a working group, but ultimately everyone gets a chance to pile on, regardless of how many mass graves some have filled back home — dictatorships, satraps, totalitarians, terror-sponsors, monarchies, democrats and democratic republics (People’s and Otherwise). Out of this stew arises a report, which the Human Rights Council then decides whether to adopt, and once it is adopted, it is part of the UN official record.

In Libya’s case, the report just adopted — or effectively approved — was drafted in 2010, while Qaddafi was still alive. It is dated Jan. 4, 2011, just a few weeks before the start of the uprising in which Libyans ultimately overthrew Qaddafi and killed him. When that draft report first saw daylight, Qaddafi’s Libya was sitting on the Human Rights Council, and had just finished presiding over the UN’s 2009-2010 General Assembly. The report lavished praise on Qaddafi, with Iran noting “with appreciation” all he had done for human rights and NGOs, Qatar praising Libya’s legal framework, Syria commending Libya’s democratic regime, Bahrain praising Libya’s “free education system,” Saudi Arabia “commmending” this and that, North Korea impressed by Libya’s institutional framework, Pakistan praising Libya’s fortitude during earlier years under sanctions, and so on, and on. UN Watch has kindly assembled some of the quotes for us, here.

It was so outrageous that when it was first slated for adoption, in March, 2011, UN Watch protested. By then, with Qaddafi fighting a populace in open rebellion, the world’s spotlights had at long last swiveled in the direction of Qaddafi’s monstrous abuse of his own people. The UN postponed adoption of this fawning, twisted report.

Until today. When it was brought up, in demure tones, before the Human Rights Council, in Geneva. And, without a whisper of protest, the Council unanimously adopted it. UN Watch provides a link to that signal moment, caught on video, here. So far, so bad.

It gets worse. The United States holds one of the 47 seats on the Human Rights Council. When that report was adopted, unanimously, where was the U.S.? Where was U.S. Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, the U.S. envoy to the Human Rights Council? Where was the voice of anyone from the U.S. delegation? In the video clip, the chamber looks largely empty, but there are some delegates present — it’s hard to figure out who they are. Did the U.S. even have someone in the chamber? Or were they all out at the cafes, talking about the virtues of “engagement”?

If the Obama administration’s rationale for saying nothing, doing nothing, and possibly not even being there, was that the U.S. had already added comments to the report, well — sorry, but that’s just not good enough. Here’s a link to the document. You can find the U.S. comments summarized in article 72, on page 12, where the U.S. “supported the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya’s increased engagement with the international community,” but “expressed concern” about reports of torture, arrest, etc., and “made recommendations.” That’s it?

The Obama administration’s oft-repeated justification for rejoining the Human Rights Council at all, let alone seeking the second term it now has, was that the U.S. would be in the thick of the action, influencing, reforming and instilling integrity into the debates. Above all, there would be “engagement.” What happened? Did no one at the State Department think this was important? Are they all asleep at the U.S. Mission in Geneva? Or have they wandered off into the Alps? Should we be sending out St. Bernard’s to look for our awol American diplomats?

The Tyranny of the UN Collective

March 14th, 2012 - 3:53 pm

Ion Mihai Pacepa has an important piece today on PJMedia, “Wake Up Panetta: UN, U.S. Have Opposing Interests.” In these days of multilateral muddling and leading from behind, Pacepa cuts to the core of a vital question about our freedom: Whom does the U.S. government serve?

Does the U.S. government find the legal basis for its actions within the framework of its own constitution? Or should it look for authority to the multilateral UN?

To many of us, the answer might seem clear. The U.S. government does not serve the UN. It serves the people of the U.S. It is of, by, and for them.

But the Obama administration has repeatedly sought to subordinate its policies to the UN, exalting the UN’s component lobbying blocs, its bureaucratically driven enthusiasms and its despot-infested high councils, as the arbiters of some utopian notion of global justice. On these grounds did the White House choose to justify its intervention in Libya, once the Security Council had given the nod; on these grounds does the White House rationalize hanging back after a year of carnage in Syria, because Russia and China will not play ball in the Security Council. Is it on these grounds that the U.S. should decide what role it will play in a promising but profoundly dangerous 21st century?

When Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta began grappling with these matters while testifying about Syria March 7 to the Senate Armed Services Committee, he slid all over the place. Under questioning by Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Panetta began talking about the need for the U.S. to find a “legal basis,” should it want to pull together an international combat operation. Sessions asked: “Who are you asking for the legal basis from?”

Panetta replied, “Obviously, if the U.N. passed a security resolution, as it did in Libya, we would do that.” … He went on to say more in this vein, but let’s stop the tape right there. Because that’s the point at which Pacepa was so horrified that he took to his keyboard. Pacepa is a former top intelligence official of the monstrous former Ceausescu regime in Romania. In 1978, he defected to the West, becoming the highest-ranking intelligence official ever to have defected from the Soviet bloc.

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Further Adventures of the Chariot?

March 11th, 2012 - 9:13 pm

A follow-up on my post below, about a Russian-operated ship, the Chariot, which delivered a cargo of Russian arms to Syria in January, then dropped out of the news, took on fresh cargo in Ukraine and spent four weeks meandering her way to…Iran. As I mentioned, when I phoned her Russian operators in St. Petersburg to ask for details, I was told that the Chariot’s cargo for Iran consisted of “Ukrainian generators” plus “general cargo.”

The Chariot called at the Iranian port of Assaluyeh, around Feb. 29, spending 33 hours there, according to the shipping information service IHS Fairplay. Then the Chariot anchored for more than a week off the United Arab Emirates, with no destination listed.

Now she’s called at Dubai’s Jebel Ali Anchorage — some details and a photo of the Chariot here.  Jebel Ali is a major container port and free trade zone — here’a youtube glimpse of the facility. On various ship-tracking databases I’ve checked, there’s still no onward destination reported for the Chariot.

What’s going on? Given the way international sanctions are structured, there’s no evidence that the Chariot has violated any sanctions. Perhaps the Dubai authorities are taking a look to make sure she conforms to various safety standards — something which has been a problem for the Chariot in the past. Perhaps she’s just sorting out her next cargo and voyage. Maybe her crew is simply enjoying the warm weather of the Gulf. I don’t know. But somehow the Chariot seems a ship prone to interesting adventures. As I mentioned in my previous post and linked article, she’s a ship designed to carry dangerous goods, a feature that came in handy when she transported a consignment of munitions, including grenades, rockets, mortar bombs and more than 4 million rounds of ammunition from the government of Egypt to the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo last summer. After all the publicity the Chariot received for delivering arms to Syria in January, it seemed implausible that she would invite yet more publicity by sailing to Iran. But then she did. It’s a bit of a speciality niche, perhaps, to follow the journeys of the Chariot. But she’s a ship worth watching. Maybe there’s a movie script in it. What next?

Odyssey of the Chariot: Iran, Ahoy!

March 6th, 2012 - 12:10 pm

You remember the Chariot? That’s the name of the tramp freighter endowed by fate with her 15 minutes of (unwanted) fame this past January, when stormy weather in the eastern Mediterranean forced her to anchor off Cyprus. Cypriot authorities discovered that the Chariot, enroute from Russia to Syria, was stuffed with weapons, which by lights of the European Union would violate an arms embargo if delivered to Syria — where the Assad regime has inflicted enough highly visible carnage this past year to persuade even Europe to take a stand.  The Cypriot authorities let the Chariot proceed, with what I’m told was her Russian crew and cargo, on the understanding that she skip Syria. But Russian authorities are not participating in the EU arms embargo, and the ship delivered her cargo to Syria anyway. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, defended the delivery as violating no international agreements or United Nations resolutions, and as far as Russia is concerned — by way of refusing to join any embargo, and blocking any UN resolution — he was right.

Having provoked outrage among those who think the Assad regime has already received more than enough weapons, the Chariot dropped out of the news. But her adventures did not cease. She sailed to the Ukrainian port of Illichevsk, took on cargo, and began a voyage of roughly four weeks, back down through the Bosphorus, through the eastern Mediterranean, transiting the Suez Canal, daring the pirate perils of the Mandab Strait, and on through the Strait of Hormuz — to Iran. Late last week she anchored at the Iranian port of Assaluyeh. More on this tale, plus details of the Chariot’s munitions shipment last year from Egypt to the Congo (hat tip to to Hugh Griffiths, of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), in my column for Forbes.com on “Russia’s Chariot Calls at Iran.”

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Russia’s Once and Future Putin

March 4th, 2012 - 7:24 pm

Russian politics becomes, in its way, ever less confusing. At least at the top.

Proclaiming “Glory to Russia!” with tears welling from his eyes — whether from sentiment, or a cold wind, remains unclear — Vladimir Putin claimed victory in Russia’s presidential elections on Sunday. Cosmetically speaking, that’s a clarifying development. For the past four years, at least in the West, it has been fairly common when discussing Putin to hear him called president, when of course he was no such thing. Sometimes, while talking about Putin, people would pause in mid-sentence, trying to remember whether he was currently president or prime minister. The official label was, of course, prime minister;  though the more helpful commentators would usually add some qualifier to the effect that although Putin was prime minister, he had been president before that, and remained the real power behind the Kremlin.

Or, just to lay it all out like a set of unpacked matryoshka dolls: When the late President Boris Yeltsin retired in 1999, Putin became acting president. He became president in 2000 and again in 2004. In 2008 he became prime minister. Now he is becoming president again, and for a longer term than any previous Russian president, including himself.

This time Putin’s presidential term will last six years, instead of the previous terms of four years, because in 2008 President Dmitry Medvedev — who now qualifies as both Putin’s successor and predecessor (and, some might say, his caretaker) — signed into law an act extending the presidential term to six years from four, starting with the next president. Who, as many predicted at the time, will now be Putin.

In sum, the reign of Putin has already lasted more than 12 years. By the time this third presidential term ends (assuming it does), Putin will have presided for more than 18 years — close to a full generation, and a span that, time-wise, by the end of his new term, will have shaped roughly two-thirds of Russia’s experience since the 1991 Soviet collapse. Putin’s official resumption of the presidency — a punctuation mark, more than an election — comes amid street protests and allegations of electoral fraud, a disenfranchised democratic opposition, and a bullied, brutalized, state co-opted and stifled domestic press. In international affairs, Russia has pocketed President Obama’s concessions, and become ever more staunchly aligned with governments hostile to U.S. interests and to democracy in general, such as Syria and Iran.

Back in the 1990s, when Boris Yeltsin was presiding in the Kremlin and dancing the twist on the 1996 re-election trail, there was tremendous debate over the character of the New World Order taking shape in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse. That was prelude. The real New World Order is now rising, and the portents in Moscow do not look good. One might well wonder — and perhaps someone in the Moscow press corps can winnow out an answer — what will become of that absurd, mislabeled “reset” button that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009 brought as a token of Obama’s esteem to Russian President Medvedev? Is it now part of the Kremlin’s toy collection? Will it now pass, as a comic symbol of grim continuity, to the keeping of the once and future President Putin?