By Somar Wijayadasa*
The United Nations marked its 70th Anniversary in September with world leaders making grandiose statements. With over 160 world leaders in town, the General Assembly was described as one of the greatest geopolitical spectacles in UN memory.
But recent cataclysmic events around the world – Ukraine, sanctions on Russia and counter sanctions by the U.S. and Europe, North Korea, Syria, Middle East, ISIS, Terrorism, Nuclearization of Europe, etc., – were unequivocally some of the biggest threats to international peace and security. These growing threats also question the credibility and viability of the United Nations.
During the 1990s, we witnessed a proliferation of sanctions imposed by the UN and the U.S. against a number of countries. At times, sanctions were used as an ulterior motive for “regime change” which is a violation of the UN Charter and the basic norms of international law.
Such a devious practice has nothing to do with protecting human rights, and promoting democracy and freedom. In most countries, sanctions deteriorated their economic, social and healthcare systems while those in power thrived and the poor suffered.
Tit for tat
Last year (2014), the U.S. and the European Union (EU) accused Russia of interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs, and imposed several sanctions on Moscow. Russia retaliated with a ban on the import of food products from EU countries. These actions have hurt the economies and citizens of both Russia and EU countries.
Russia learned a lesson for relying on food imports but soon decided to revamp its agriculture and animal husbandry. Russia entered into multi-million dollar agriculture and animal husbandry projects with Asian countries that bode well for its future.
Russia’s counter-sanctions are hurting European farmers and businesses. In September, French farmers blocked roads from Spain and Germany in protest against foreign products entering the country and falling food prices; Norway’s fishermen are out of work; farmers in Poland, France and Italy are on the brink of bankruptcy.
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, “Russia imported about $43 billion worth of food products from EU in 2013, of which the banned goods accounted for nearly $9 billion.” The EU ambassador to Russia said in August 2014, “the EU could lose up to 12 billion euro ($16 billion) in lost earnings because of Russia’s ban on food imports.”
Recently, a survey by the Austrian Institute of Economic Research, confirmed that sanctions against Russia could threaten 2.5 million jobs across Europe, and projected economic losses in the EU could reach 109 billion euros.
In February, Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia signed the Minsk II Peace Agreement as the basis for a ceasefire and political settlement. It has already helped end the fighting.
But, no matter how the conflict ends, Crimea will remain a part of Russia – as it has been for centuries prior to 1954 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gifted it to Ukraine.
Now, with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Syria, the West can demonize him further forgetting the fact that before Putin’s blitzkrieg to destroy ISIS, the whole Middle East – Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen – is in a wildfire of failed states, civil wars, extremists, death, destruction, millions of refugees and mass migration.
Since 2011, Syria has been in a civil war, and today, two-thirds of its territory is held by rebel groups and ISIS, and the U.S. coalition of 62 countries have thus far failed to destroy ISIS.
According to the UN, more than 250,000 Syrians have been killed, a million injured, and 11 million displaced from their homes. Over four million have fled to neighboring countries, including those making the dangerous journey to Europe.
Referring to failed interventions of the U.S. in the Middle East, Putin said: “Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty, and social disaster.”
Recently, we noticed a flurry of high-level diplomatic consultations between Presidents Obama and Putin, Defence Secretaries Ashton Carter and Sergey Shoygu, and Foreign Secretaries John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov. Also surprise visits to Moscow by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and several others bode well for all parties.
End of September, Obama and Putin agreed to form a broader coalition to fight against ISIS in Syria and end the civil war. But the biggest thorn is President Bashar al-Assad. U.S. and its allies argue that there cannot be peace and stability in Syria with al-Assad in power.
If the joint efforts by U.S., Russia and over 60 others succeed in eliminating ISIS from Syria, an opportunity may arise to form – with or without Assad – a unified, robust and credible government that is mutually agreeable to all parties. If that happens, the winners will be not the U.S. or Russia but the Syrian people.
Nuclear nightmare is once again on the rise – as relations between Moscow and the West have crashed to a post-Cold War low.
The UN has sought to eliminate nuclear weapons ever since its establishment. It adopted its first resolution in 1946 establishing a Commission to make proposals for “the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction”.
The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has been ratified by some 191 states and entered into force in 1970. Moreover, the United States and Russia signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987 to eliminate nuclear missiles capable of striking targets on the European continent.
The world has not forgotten that – after the Berlin Wall fell – the NATO promised the Soviet Union that it would not expand NATO toward Russia’s borders. Also, speaking in Prague in 2009, Obama promised a world without nuclear weapons.
But the recent U.S. decision to deploy B61-12 guided nuclear bombs to Germany (each bomb with four times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb) could trigger a new arms race throughout Europe. This is not only a conscious provocation against Russia but also violates the NPT and INF Treaties – and, may cause Russia to exit the INF Treaty.
In September, many world leaders addressing the UN General Assembly valiantly reiterated that “there is urgent need to work for a world free of nuclear weapons”.
It has proven time and again (recently as per Cuba and Iran) that the world leaders can – if they wish – put aside partisan politics and use diplomacy, goodwill and rule of law to seek common ground to make a significant difference.
President Obama deserves credit for lifting the U.S. embargo (imposed in 1962) against Cuba, which has been the longest standing and cruelest economic embargo ever experienced by any country. It seriously obstructed and constrained the efforts of the Cuban people to eradicate poverty, improve their living standard, and achieve economic and social development.
Obama also successfully concluded the Iran Nuclear Deal, along with five other major world powers. Addressing General Assembly in September, Obama stated “how international cooperation – including with Russia – was key in leading to a lasting, comprehensive deal with Tehran on its nuclear program”.
Time is opportune for United States and Russia to stop demonizing each other, and set an example by rallying all world leaders to resolve conflicts around the world.
*Somar Wijayadasa was a UNESCO delegate to the UN General Assembly for ten consecutive years from1985-1995, and was Representative of UNAIDS at the United Nations from1995-2000.