March 11, 2005

The questions not asked II - UN resolutions

It's time to play another game of The questions not asked. This is where we examine the reporting of some news event and try and identify the obvious questions that should have been posed by the media, or the context that should have been provided to better understand the event, but wasn't.

Today's example is taken from a speech given by George W. Bush on March 8, 2005 and reported in the Houston Chronicle.

"The time has come for Syria to fully implement Security Council Resolution 1559," Bush told a largely military audience at the National Defense University. "All Syrian military forces and intelligence personnel must withdraw before the Lebanese elections for those elections to be free and fair."
Bush, in a speech touting progress toward democracy in the broader Middle East, did not say what might follow failure to comply.
At the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan also left the question open. "If they don't follow through on their international obligations, then, obviously, you have to look at what the next steps are," McClellan said.

So what questions were not posed? What context was not provided?

One immediate answer is to compare the situations in Lebanon and Iraq. How can Bush say that the Lebanese elections cannot be free and fair because of the presence of 14,000 Syrian troops there, when ten times that many US troops were present in Iraq during that election in January, but those elections were praised?

But that question was not asked, the context not provided.

But there is another obvious angle to this particular case that was also overlooked, and that is the way in which UN resolutions are used selectively to justify US policy decisions.

UN resolutions routinely call, among other things, for the withdrawal of foreign troops from other countries. And given that the UN is, for want of anything better, the closest thing we have to providing a global consensus, such resolutions should be taken seriously.

But this is not the first time that UN resolutions calling for the withdrawal of occupying troops to be withdrawn have been defied. For example, Stephen Zunes, professor of Politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco in his article US Double Standards in the October 22, 2002 issue of The Nation magazine says that more than ninety UN resolutions are currently being violated, and the vast majority of the violations are by countries closely allied with the US. He says:

For example, in 1975, after Morocco's invasion of Western Sahara and Indonesia's invasion of East Timor, the Security Council passed a series of resolutions demanding immediate withdrawal. However, then-US ambassador to the UN Daniel Patrick Moynihan bragged that "the Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. The task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success." East Timor finally won its freedom in 1999. Moroccan forces still occupy Western Sahara. Meanwhile, Turkey remains in violation of Security Council Resolution 353 and more than a score of resolutions calling for its withdrawal from northern Cyprus, which Turkey, a NATO ally, invaded in 1974.
The most extensive violator of Security Council resolutions is Israel. Israel's refusal to respond positively to the formal acceptance this past March by the Arab League of the land-for-peace formula put forward in Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 arguably puts Israel in violation of these resolutions, long seen as the basis for Middle East peace. More clearly, Israel has defied Resolutions 267, 271 and 298, which demand that it rescind its annexation of greater East Jerusalem, as well as dozens of other resolutions insisting that Israel cease its violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention, such as deportations, demolition of homes, collective punishment and seizure of private property. Unlike some of the hypocritical and meanspirited resolutions passed by the UN General Assembly, like the now-rescinded 1975 resolution equating Zionism with racism, these Security Council resolutions are well grounded in international law and were passed with US support or abstention. Security Council Resolutions 446, 452 and 465 require that Israel evacuate all its illegal settlements on occupied Arab lands.

All the UN resolution pointed to be Zunes are very serious and are much older that the resolution 1559 being used against Syria, so that these violations are long standing. All this information is in the public record. Any reasonably competent journalist should know it and, when the administration (and this is done by both Republican and Democratic administrations) cynically invokes UN resolutions selectively to achieve narrow political ends, should be able to pose the relevant question of why only some UN resolutions have to be followed while others ignored.

But the mainstream journalists don't do this. One question is why. But the more important question is, since they don't do their job, what can we do to make up for it?


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Well, I could think of stupider things to do than attempting to engage the White House press secretary in a discussion of abstract principles of international law, but not many. In contrast, attempting to elucidate U.S. policy seems like a perfectly intelligible goal.

Posted by y81 on March 13, 2005 01:39 PM

Maybe a litle false equivalence here? We have lots of troops in South Korea and Germany (not to mention California and North Carolina) and those places have pretty good elections (except for Los Angeles, but that's another story). But there isn't any place where the Syrian military has a strong presence, including Syria, that has free and fair elctions. So maybe there are differences between the Syrian military and the American military.

Posted by Roscoe on March 13, 2005 05:59 PM

We can blog about it until journalists start asking the question... great question, Mano!

Posted by Sandy Kristin Piderit on March 14, 2005 12:39 AM

With regard to Roscoe's point, I am sure that the issue can be debated with pro and con arguments. Taking just the South Korea case, for example, the US has had troops in South Korea since 1953 and there have been all kinds of problematic elections, and even military coups, during that period. One has to take the full historical record and see whether the presence of US troops in a country correlated with fair elections there.

My main concern here is not so much with the conclusion that one arrives at but that the question is not even raised, the context is not provided, and the issue is not debated.

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