Top officials for the United Nations last week announced the terrorist group Islamic State, also known as ISIS, committed crimes against humanity “on an unimaginable scale.” On Monday, the international organization followed up by sending a fact-finding team to Iraq to investigate these claims.
Whether the U.N. will act on its findings is yet to be seen.
U.N. expert Brett D. Schaefer, who is the Jay Kingham senior research fellow in international regulatory affairs at The Heritage Foundation, argues that the United States must be “realistic” in dealings with the organization.
What that means, he explains, is “supporting it where U.S. interests can be advanced while being unafraid to explore alternative options when it proves unproductive.”
In an exclusive interview with The Daily Signal, Schaefer, editor of the 2009 book “ConUNdrum,” assesses the U.N.’s report on ISIS, sharing where he thinks the organization will help – or hinder – America’s fight against the terrorist threat. In some cases, he says, America must act alone.
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Q: The United Nations just put out a report stating ISIS, or the Islamic State, has committed crimes against humanity in Iraq and Syria. What does the U.N. mean and why did it take so long for the world body to respond to an international crisis?
A: Crimes against humanity are serious crimes – murder, slavery, torture, rape, etc. – committed against a civilian population in a widespread and/or organized manner. The first notable definition was codified under the Nuremberg trials after World War II. The U.N. report accuses ISIS of torture, murder, acts tantamount to enforced disappearance, and forcible displacement of a civilian population committed at a scale rising to crimes against humanity.
The report is the eighth report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, which was established in August 2011. Thus, the U.N. actually has been paying attention to events in Syria for quite some time.
However, it is important to note that the U.N. report was not initiated in response to ISIS, but as an inquiry into “alleged violations of international human rights law since March 2011 in the Syrian Arab Republic.” Although ISIS has existed for over a decade in various iterations, it first became really prominent as a concern only a couple of years ago.
The crimes of ISIS have been included in the report because they have been committed, in part, in Syria, and fall under the mandate of the commission. It is fortunate that an existing inquiry was underway that could look into ISIS acts in Syria. In response to ISIS actions in Iraq, the Human Rights Council voted to send a fact-finding team, which is expected to report back in March 2015. This will complement the work of the commission.
Q: What is your assessment of the recommendations in the U.N. report?
A: For the most part they are non-controversial. Calls for sustaining funding for humanitarian efforts, for instance, are justified and are consistent with current actions of the U.S. and other nations.
In many cases, however, they are unlikely to be realized. For example, there are a number of pleas for improved behavior by the combatants, e.g. to respect and comply with human rights and international humanitarian law, reject violence and respect freedom of religion, to cease using illegal and indiscriminate weapons, and to allow access to the country by the commissioners, human rights monitors and humanitarian workers.
Obviously, these outcomes would be good. But experience over the past few years, with repeated willful violation of these principles by multiple combatants, provides little reason to believe that such appeals will be successful.
Q: Would following these recommendations counter the threat of ISIS? How much action would the U.S. be required to take unilaterally?
A: The commission calls on the international community to enact an arms embargo and on the U.N. Security Council to “enhance the enforcement and implementation of international human rights and humanitarian law through the range of powers and measures at its disposal.”
The Security Council passed resolution 2170 on Aug. 15, which condemns terrorist acts committed by ISIS and its indiscriminate killing and deliberate targeting of civilians and other atrocities; calls for those committing crimes to be held accountable; and applies an asset freeze, travel ban and arms embargo “to ISIL [or ISIS], ANF, and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al-Qaida.”
The resolution also demands that ISIS cease all violence and terrorist acts; demands that foreign fighters supporting ISIS withdraw; and calls on states to impede the movement of individuals seeking to join ISIS, block transfer of financing, supplies and arms to ISIS, and observe sanctions to six specified individuals linked with ISIS.
ISIS has little interest in entering the international community, and moral appeals and ostracization will a have minimal impact. Although it has a part to play, the U.N. lacks the capacity and means to back and impose its demands, and relies on its member states to support, implement and enforce them.
The U.N. doesn’t have its own army – the member states must provide troops tor peacekeeping – and, regardless, U.N. peacekeepers have proven to be poor war fighters historically. Compliance with Security Council resolutions can be haphazard among nations, either from disagreement or limited capabilities. Few countries outside the U.S. are willing or capable of taking military action to deter ISIS.
Q: When it comes down to it, if the U.N. does want to act, is it correct that a country such as Russia or China could block action because it’s a Security Council decision? How does that work?
A: Under the U.N. Charter, the Security Council can adopt a resolution that is, in theory, binding on all member states. However, it is not uncommon for countries to ignore or only partially comply with resolutions.
There are 15 members of the Security Council. Ten members are elected by the General Assembly. China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (the victorious allies of World War II) are permanent members of the Security Council.
A resolution can pass the Security Council with nine positive votes. However, each of the permanent members of the Security Council possesses a veto and can unilaterally block any resolution.
Q: What is the point of the U.N. if it can’t or doesn’t act during such a crisis?
The United Nations was created to maintain international peace and security, promote self-determination and basic human rights, and protect fundamental freedoms. Regrettably, the U.N. has produced more disappointment than success in realizing these high aspirations. A great deal of the blame for this failure is due to divergent interests among the member states that have prevented the organization from taking decisive, timely action.
However, the U.N. can serve a valuable purpose as a forum where nations can debate shared concerns and collaborate on joint efforts to address them and some initiatives, like peacekeeping missions, are often more politically acceptable as a U.N. operation than they would be otherwise.
The United States must be realistic in its dealings with the U.N. and have a clear understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the organization, supporting it where U.S. interests can be advanced while being unafraid to explore alternative options when it proves unproductive.
Q: Is there anything in this situation that the U.N. is uniquely qualified to address?
A: The U.N. inquiry does provide, in this instance, an objective assessment of the situation in Syria, and its condemnation of the actions of the Syrian government and ISIS is useful. The U.N. is also an important vehicle for providing humanitarian assistance.
Because nearly every nation is a member of the U.N., the organization can be uniquely helpful in mobilizing resources and conveying assistance. If, for instance, the U.S. tried to provide assistance directly, its efforts would be viewed as partisan by some combatants and its citizens would be targets. While not immune – U.N. workers are occasionally targeted – they are typically seen as neutral actors.
Q: What’s the question here about the U.N. that isn’t being asked or understood?
Although the U.N. frequently condemns terrorism, as it did in resolution 2170, it is important to understand that the U.N. has never agreed on a definition of terrorism.
The main impediment is that Muslim countries insist, as stated in the 1998 Arab Convention for the Suppression of Terrorism: “All cases of struggle by whatever means, including armed struggle, against foreign occupation and aggression for liberation and self-determination, in accordance with the principles of international law, shall not be regarded as [a terrorism] offense.”
In other words, Palestinian acts of terrorism against Israel must be excluded. The failure to define terrorism inhibits U.N. efforts to combat it.