Posts Tagged ‘United Nations’

On May 24, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a speech to a joint session of the US Congress, a speech that I find endlessly fascinating. I previously posted four installments of my analysis of this speech, trying to decipher (with some help from George Orwell) Netanyahu’s use of such words as “peace,” “friend,” “security,” and “state.” If you assumed that my discussion of Netanyahu’s speech was over, you were not alone; I too thought that there was nothing more to be said — until I realized that I hadn’t addressed the crux of the matter.

There is one last point that I still need to make, and that point relates to the original context of Netanyahu’s speech, i.e., the Palestinian initiative to get United Nation’s recognition for a Palestinian state. It is precisely this possibility, this “threat,” that motivated the Israeli Prime Minister to visit the United States in the first place and to speak not only with the US President but also address the US Congress. There may not have been such a flurry of diplomatic initiatives if the United Nations’ recognition of Palestine were not a real possibility that his government genuinely feared.

If your opponent advises you not to use a particular strategy, you can be sure that that’s precisely the strategy you need to use!

This is what Netanyahu said about the Palestinian initiative:

The Palestinian attempt to impose a settlement through the United Nations will not bring peace. (Applause.) It should be forcefully opposed by all those who want to see this conflict end. I appreciate the president’s clear position on these — on this issue. Peace cannot be imposed. It must be negotiated. (Applause.)

Notice the word “impose.” According to the dictionary, the word “impose” means to force (something unwelcome or unfamiliar) to be accepted or put in place. To paraphrase Netanyahu, Palestinians are trying to force a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way that Israel is unwilling to accept. If anyone wants to see the end of this conflict, Netanyahu says, they must oppose the Palestinian initiative since it “will not bring peace.” This is because, he goes on to emphasize, “Peace cannot be imposed. It must be negotiated.”

I find this to be a very convincing statement, and I don’t know if any rational person would disagree with Netanyahu on this issue. A peaceful settlement of any conflict must be one in which the needs of both parties are satisfied, so that both parties have equal stakes in ensuring the success of the settlement. In contrast, any settlement in which the needs of one party are met at the cost of the needs of the other party will never lead to a lasting peace. Sounds like a perfectly fair and just principle.

Several problems arise, however, as we look at this matter closely.

First, whenever there is a conflict between two unequal parties — especially when one of them is many, many times more powerful than the other — it makes perfect sense to use the word “impose” with respect to the stronger party, but it makes no sense to use it with respect to the weaker one. If anyone has been “imposing” its will in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it can only be the party that has the ability to do the “imposing.” For the stronger party to blame the weaker one for trying to “impose” its own brand of settlement is not only unjustifiable, it is also disingenuous. This use of the word “impose” distracts the audience from the issue of the difference in power between the two sides. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict can neither be understood nor resolved if the issue of unequal power is kept off the table. In many ways, the entire conflict is about power. The belief that it’s a conflict between equal parties is itself the result of an unfair exercise of power; such an assumption is not conducive to a just settlement.

Second, consider the word “negotiation” which is used by Netanyahu in contradistinction to “impose.” The Israeli Prime Minister is adamant that you cannot unilaterally “impose” a settlement and thus achieve peace. You must, on the contrary, enter a process of “negotiation” with the other side and arrive at a mutually agreed-upon settlement, for only such a settlement can produce peace. The two concepts are mutually exclusive. If you are trying to “impose” your will, you are obviously not trying to “negotiate,” and vice versa. As a general principle, most people would agree that it is always better to “negotiate” than to “impose.”

Yet, the text of the same speech reveals the main reason why the two decades worth of “negotiations” between the Israelis and the Palestinian have been unsuccessful: the Israelis are not truly “negotiating,” mainly because they are the stronger party and can get away with “imposing” their will. As the Israelis continue to “impose” their will, Palestinians are being asked to give up more and more of their rights through “negotiation.” If it’s true that “imposing” is the exact opposite of “negotiating,” then Israel is guilty of “imposing” its own version of the settlement for several decades while blaming the Palestinians for not “negotiating” (i.e., for not being sufficiently submissive).

In reality, there is no such thing as “negotiation” unless there is a relative parity between the two sides. In cases where one side is significantly stronger than the other, we need a third-party, a mediator, to ensure that no bullying or “imposing” takes place. This is precisely the principle on which our legal systems are based. If a stronger party, such as a government agency or a corporation, is perceived as “imposing” its will on a weaker party, such as an individual or a group of individuals, the latter cannot possibly have any hopes of receiving justice through direct “negotiation,” and must, therefore, take its case to a third, objective party, i.e., the courts. At least in theory, the courts are supposed to act in an impartial way and to ensure that no one’s rights are violated. In other words, the disparity of power between the two sides in a given conflict is precisely the reason why we have set up legal systems in the first place. A conflict between unequal sides is the breeding ground for injustice, for unfair consequences are likely to result through one side “imposing” its will without the other side’s consent. Given the tendency of unchecked power towards corruption, the impartiality of the judiciary is meant to level the playing field by empowering the weaker party, so that genuine “negotiation” can become possible.

In the case of “negotiations” between the Israelis and Palestinians, the problem is that the mediator has traditionally been United States, a superpower that is hardly a neutral party in this conflict. If it is true, as Netanyahu says in the same speech, that “Israel has no better friend than the United States,” then this “special relationship” between the two countries already puts an end to any hope that the US can act as an impartial mediator. Consequently, Palestinians have every right to take their case to an authority that they believe is capable of acting impartially, i.e., the United Nations. They would do so not to “impose” their will on Israel but to ensure that Israel is not able to “impose” its will on the Palestinians.

Third, Netanyahu is demanding the Palestinians to follow a principle that he would himself find unacceptable should it be applied consistently. Take a look at the history of this conflict. The state of Israel came into being not through a process of “negotiation” but as a result of a unilateral declaration that was, literally, “imposed” on an unwilling population against their will.

According to Netanyahu, the problem has always been the Arabs’ refusal to accept a “Jewish state.” He said the following in the same speech:

In 1947, the U.N. voted to partition the land into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Jews said yes; the Palestinians said no.

Here, the Israeli Prime Minister is referring to the United Nations resolution 181, also known as the “Partition Plan,” that was adopted on November 29, 1947. The resolution was adopted by the General Assembly, not by the Security Council. As such, it was a non-binding recommendation, which meant that its legal status depended on acceptance by the relevant parties. It so happened, as Netanyahu informs us, that the Arabs categorically rejected the resolution. Consequently, according to Netanyahu’s own standards, such a resolution should never have been implemented. Since only one party to the conflict accepted it and the other did not, the resolution had obviously failed to meet the needs of both parties. To implement such a resolution meant that one party would have to “impose” it on the other, unwilling party.

But isn’t “imposing” something that Netanyahu dislikes a great deal? That depends on who is doing the “imposing.” While the Israeli Prime Minister abhors the Palestinian initiative to “impose a settlement,” he seems to have no objection against Israel having “imposed” (its own interpretation of) the “Partition Plan” on an unwilling population.

This brings me to my final point. Netanyahu knows his history but is playing games with logic; yet, truth has a tendency to make itself known, loud and clear. To repeat his statement: “The Palestinian attempt to impose a settlement through the United Nations will not bring peace.” How does he know? Netanyahu is implying, inadvertently and unconsciously, that the Palestinian attempt to impose a settlement through the United Nations will not bring peace just as the Jewish attempts to impose a settlement on the basis of a United Nations resolution have failed to bring peace. Yet, he would not dare to make that comparison. His implied but unacknowledged reasoning goes like this: The Palestinian attempt in 2011 to “impose a settlement” will not work because Israel is unwilling to accept it; this is almost identical to the case that the Israeli efforts to impose a settlement since 1947 have failed to work because the native Palestinians have been unwilling to accept it. What can we infer from this line of reasoning? Both sides must accept a settlement in order for it to work. This is a compelling argument, except that it goes against everything that Netanyahu publicly stands for. The argument is present in the very structure of his reasoning, but he won’t acknowledge it mainly because he is a politician.

In effect, it is grossly illogical for Netanyahu to accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state on the basis of a UN resolution while denying the feasibility of the same process in case of the Palestinian state. Here, Netanyahu’s reasoning runs into what must be the bane of all political discourse — consistency. If it’s wrong for the Palestinians to seek a unilateral settlement through the United Nations, why has it been right for the Israelis to claim that privilege since 1947?

Let’s read the above statement once again, and this time let’s look for unacknowledged assumptions:

In 1947, the U.N. voted to partition the land into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Jews said yes; the Palestinians said no.

The connotations of this statement are clear as daylight: In 1947, when the Jews said “yes” to the UN resolution, they were making the right choice; when the Palestinians said “no” to the same resolution, they were making the wrong choice. This is the plain sense meaning of Netanyahu’s statement. Now the question that remains unanswered, and even unmentioned, is this: Why? Why was accepting the “Partition Plan” a good thing and rejecting it was a bad thing? It was, after all, a human document that was produced through imperial politics and much arm-twisting. If a group of people thought that the recommendation of the UN General Assembly did not meet their needs, what could possibly be wrong with rejecting it? Netanyahu does not answer this question explicitly, and neither does any of the other pro-Israel commentators who keep referring to the UN resolution of 1947 as if it were as sacred and infallible as the tablets of divine law.

It is crucial to understand this aspect of Netanyahu’s reasoning. What, exactly, made the Jewish choice right and the Palestinian choice wrong?

Let me suggest two possible assumptions, one of which must underlie the Israeli Prime Minister’s reasoning. Netanyahu either believes that (a) the UN is a legitimate authority and its resolutions should always be accepted by all parties; or he believes that (b) you should accept the UN resolutions if they are in your interest and reject them if they are not.

If we assume the former, then it contradicts Netanyahu’s position against the Palestinian initiative. Obviously, if Netanyahu believes that the UN is the legitimate authority in international conflicts, then he should have no objection against the Palestinians taking their case to the UN. In fact, he should be eager to accept whatever the UN decides. If the UN General Assembly gave the right verdict in 1947, it can give another right verdict in 2011.

If we assume the latter, then it contradicts Netanyahu’s position that the Palestinians made the wrong choice when they rejected the UN resolution back in 1947. Obviously, if Netanyahu believes that you should only accept those resolutions that are in your own interest, then he cannot criticize the Palestinian choice since they had found the UN resolution 181 to be against their interest.

As we can see, both of my attempts to answer the “why” question run into irresolvable contradictions, suggesting that there are some deep problems with Netanyahu’s reasoning. But is it really possible that a leader of this stature is illogical in his thinking? I find such a conclusion difficult to accept.

Thankfully, we don’t have to believe that Netanyahu is being illogical. Here’s my solution.

The Israeli Prime Minister believes that his nation is unique and special, so much so that the difference between right and wrong does not depend on any moral or legal principles, but entirely upon whether or not something is in the immediate interest of his people. Consequently, (a) the Palestinian choice in 1947 was wrong because it was against the interest of Israel; similarly, (b) the Palestinian initiative in 2011 is wrong because it is against the interest of Israel. In both cases, the interest of the Palestinian people does not count.

I know that this sounds really harsh, but I can’t think of any other way of explaining Netanyahu reasoning. He is either inconsistent and therefore illogical; or he is fully consistent and therefore a racist. I will go with the latter option, since I find it hard to believe that a Prime Minister of Israel is unable to think logically.

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After accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, President Barak Obama delivered a speech in which he attempted to justify his decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan. Then, on a more positive note, he presented his vision for achieving just and lasting peace in the world. He argued that we must work on three different fronts if we are to reach that Promised Land: (1) Use nonviolent means to discipline rogue nations; (2) Ensure respect for fundamental human rights; (3) Provide economic security and opportunity.

Basically, the President explained that if we can get these three ingredients and mix them together, the result will be wonderful, delicious peace. Unfortunately, there are a few problems with each of these ingredients, problems that President Obama did not discuss in his speech. But despair not! It turns out that the problems can be resolved.  In fact, if we look closely at each ingredient, it is possible to find the solutions to their problematic aspects with the help of some of the implications of Obama’s own words. Even though Obama himself did not explicitly mention these implications, all we have to do is to carry his line of thinking a little further! Let’s examine his three points one by one.

Explaining the point about rogue nations, Obama said:

First, in dealing with those nations that break rules and laws, I believe that we must develop alternatives to violence that are tough enough to actually change behavior — for if we want a lasting peace, then the words of the international community must mean something. Those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable. Sanctions must exact a real price. Intransigence must be met with increased pressure — and such pressure exists only when the world stands together as one.

Yes!  Who could disagree with such an obvious prerequisite for building a just and peaceful world? No society can tolerate deviant or criminal behavior from one of its members without endangering its very integrity; the same holds true for the world as a whole. In the contemporary context, the voice of the international community can be heard loud and clear in the chambers of the United Nations and its affiliated organizations. Regimes that violate the consensus of the international community are obviously endangering world’s peace; there has to be a mechanism for holding them accountable for breaking the rules, and, in the interest of peace, that mechanism must not involve bombing and destruction.

Obama says that all nations should follow certain rules and laws, but every now and then some nation refuses to do so. That nation must be punished. So far so good. But what happens when the regime that is violating the consensus of the international community is so powerful that the latter dares not hold it accountable? Or the regime is able to use both carrot and stick to persuade enough members of the international community to keep their mouths shut? Or, if everything else fails, the regime simply ignores the cries and screams of the world and goes on flagrantly defying the rules of acceptable behavior? Alternatively, what if the regime that is accused of violating the consensus of the international community is so week that it is unable to get everyone to listen to its own side of the story?  What if some members of the international community gang up against that regime and make so much noise that the accused can no longer expect a fair hearing? What if some of the rules were made in such a way as to favor only a few nations and that, in order to get justice, a particularly disadvantaged nation has no recourse other than breaking those rules?

If we were to raise these problems in front of President Obama, what would he say? Of course, he would not say that powerful nations ought to enjoy an exemption from the rules and laws that everyone else is required to follow; nor would he say that it is fair to make rules that favor some against the other. Americans have a long history of resisting such brazen violations of fairplay in their own legislative and judicial systems; one would expect that they would never allow such violations to become acceptable norms in the international system either. Consequently, Obama would agree that the world needs fool-proof mechanisms to prevent such injustices, similar to the checks and balances that have been placed in the American systems of government and law. Obama is, after all, a trained lawyer himself; he not only understands the importance of justice but he is also well aware of the many ways in which justice can be bypassed or corrupted by the rich and the powerful.

The solution, then, is obvious: the United Nations must be reorganized so that mutually agreed-upon principles, rules of conduct, and moral standards are always upheld, even — and especially — when they go against the wishes of the powerful. This, in turn, requires that all nations accept equality before the law and agree to follow the international consensus. Violators will face nonviolent punishment commensurate with their crimes, and they will be strictly prohibited from using their economic, military, or diplomatic power to avoid their just penalties.

On the relationship between peace and human rights, Obama said:

This brings me to a second point — the nature of the peace that we seek.  For peace is not merely the absence of visible conflict. Only a just peace based on the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting.  . . . .  I believe that peace is unstable where citizens are denied the right to speak freely or worship as they please; choose their own leaders or assemble without fear. Pent-up grievances fester, and the suppression of tribal and religious identity can lead to violence.

Again, the President is absolutely correct. Violence erupts when people’s basic needs are not met for a long time. When we work to ensure that everyone is able to meet their basic needs and secure their fundamental human rights, we are, in effect, working for peace. The absence of overt conflict is merely “negative peace.” On the other hand, “positive peace” is characterized by a state of justice and fairness.  We can establish “negative peace” through violence or threats of violence, but such a peace is precarious and unstable; it has no foundation to stand upon and so it does not last very long. The peace that lasts is always the result of social and political justice; people are unlikely to resort to violence if no one denies their rights and no one stops them from fulfilling their needs.

Again, there are a few problems. What happens when the interests of a particular nation are in conflict with the needs and rights of another nation or group of people? What if one nation believes that it has a right to self-determination, but another, more powerful, nation refuses to cooperate on the grounds that this would violate its own interests? What if a particular regime is known to violate the human rights of its own population, but the continuation of this regime’s rule happens to be in the interest of another, more powerful nation? What if the interests of a particular nation are such that they require the uprooting of indigenous communities all over the world or the exploitation of children half way across the globe or the irreversible destruction of the natural environment?

If we were to raise these problems in front of President Obama, what would he say?  Obviously, he would not say that the interests of a particular regime can trump the basic needs and rights of a people; nor would he say that the stock value of a corporation can have more worth than the life-style of an indigenous community, nor that the Dow Jones has a greater right to protection than the need of a far away people to enjoy clean air and drinkable water. Obama would also reject the notion that it is fair to destroy the world’s climate for the sake of some abstraction called “economic growth.” Instead, Obama is most likely to agree that all the nations of the world must submit to the principle that human rights take precedence over the interests of any state or corporation. If a nation violates this principle, it ought to be held accountable at the international level and forced to pay reparations or suffer appropriate penalties.

Finally, Obama made his point about economic security:

Third, a just peace includes not only civil and political rights — it must encompass economic security and opportunity. For true peace is not just freedom from fear, but freedom from want.

How true!  It is impossible to have a just and lasting peace in the world if the economic needs of large number of people are not being met, or if large number of people are living under constant anxiety about their financial future, or, worse, if they don’t even know whether they would have anything to eat tomorrow. In the absence of economic security, people are likely to feel that they have nothing to lose, they have nothing to hope for, and they have no personal stake in the society and its structures. Such a mindset can easily breed violence. Similarly, if people do not experience at least some fairness in term of economic opportunities, they are also likely to turn towards violence. A society that does not provide more or less equal economic opportunities to all its members would inevitably create classes of extremely rich and extremely poor, a situation that would lead to resentment, anger, and frustrations . . . and therefore violence. A fair and equitable distribution of wealth is an essential prerequisite for world peace.

Let’s look at the problems associated with this statement. What happens if certain societies are prevented by external forces to provide economic security to their members? What if the economic prosperity of some societies result directly from the economic exploitation of other societies? What if the level of economic opportunity enjoyed by a certain proportion of humankind requires that the same level of opportunities be denied to the rest of the world? What if the style of consumption in some societies is such that it necessitates stealing the life chances of a significant part of humanity? What if the resulting anguish and violence does not remain confined at the local level but spills over into the global arena? What if all the people of the world start demanding the same quality of economic security and the same opportunities for economic development as enjoyed by the richest of the rich? What if the planet cannot provide sufficient natural resources to meet such a demand?

How would Obama respond if we were to raise problems like these? Having already admitted that peace results at least partly from economic security and opportunity, he cannot say that large proportions of the world’s population can be kept in abject poverty or even in relative deprivation without such a situation causing serious threats to world peace. He would also understand that the rate of consumption characteristic of the industrialized West, particularly the United States, is so high that it is simply incapable of being universalized. Currently, the oil consumption in the United States is about 24.8 barrels per day per person; it is about 1.9 barrels in China and 0.8 barrels in India. If the Chinese and the Indians start demanding the same level of economic security and opportunity as that of the United States, it is doubtful if the earth would be able to spit out enough black gold to quench their thirst. Obama would understand that since the standard of consumption cannot be elevated to the same level for the entire human population, the only way to ensure a more or less equitable distribution of economic goods would be for the richest of the rich to accept a considerably lower level of consumption. As Gandhi is reported to have said, live simply so that others may simply live.

There you have it.  Obama’s three-point agenda for achieving a just and lasting peace! The plan demands that the United States take a leadership role in order to: (1) Make the United Nations truly effective by establishing de facto equality for all the member states; (2) Establish the principle of zero tolerance for human rights violations; (3) Reduce the standard of living in rich countries and raise it in poor countries until they meet at a sustainable middle.

Of course, it would be foolish to expect such things from the US President. Despite the rumors, Obama is no Messiah. But it does go to his credit that he has, at least, given us the recipe for world peace. Better yet, he has given us his own standards on which his administration’s conduct will be judged.

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