Disintegrating European Diplomacy and the Necessary Rise of NGO Mediators

, by Rene Wadlow

Disintegrating European Diplomacy and the Necessary Rise of NGO Mediators
Flag of the United Nations

On Friday 23 September 2011, Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority formally requested that the UN Security Council grant Palestine full membership as a state. Currently the Palestine Liberation Movement (PLO) has an observer status as an “entity” at the UN from the time that the South African African National Congress, another South African movement, a South West African liberation group and the PLO were given “observer entity” status. With the changes in South Africa and what is now Namibia, the status of the other movements disappeared and only the PLO remains.

The request for an upgrade of status, following UN rules of procedure will be first presented to the Security Council. Nawaf Salan, Lebanon’s ambassador to the UN and the current Security Council President said that discussions on the application would start on Monday the 26th. However, it may take several weeks of backroom negotiations before the application is put to a vote. The negotiation process may be speeded up for fear that frustrations on the part of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza lead to violence. The United States has indicated that it will veto the application. For a Security Council accord, there needs to be a positive vote of 9 out of the 15 Council members but no veto. In the case of a veto, the Palestinian Authority can transfer the application to the General Assembly to upgrade the status from “observer entity” to “non-member observer.” It is most likely that the General Assembly would vote positively on this request; the only question is how many states would vote against or abstain.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has proposed that there should be a favourable vote on the upgrade to non-member observer state. The only other non-member observer state is the Holy See (often referred to as ‘the Vatican’ after the name of its chief – and only- city). The Holy See has an influential position despite its non-member observer status. Although its diplomatic corps is formed of only Roman Catholics — often clergy — they can be drawn from all countries of the world. They are especially trained in a Vatican-sponsored university in Rome and tend to be specialists in some important issues negotiated at the UN. In the 1960s, when the development of African and other states newly entered to the UN was a key issue, the Vatican delegation to the UN in Geneva had as representatives people who were leading specialists on development issues. Unfortunately, the PLO observers have been of very uneven quality. They have contributed nothing to general discussions, only raising Palestinian issues. Thus, it is always the quality of a diplomat and not the status of a state that counts. This is especially true since from the mid-1960s on, issues are no longer decided by votes but by negotiations to reach a consensus text.

The upgrading of the status of Palestine from an entity to a state would be a positive step. It would permit the Palestinians to negotiate with Israel on a state-to-state basis and would allow Palestine to step out of the shadows of its ‘protector’ Arab states and to speak as an independent state.

It was clear from this June on that the Palestinian Authority would request an upgrading of status. There were discussions in the UN halls in New York and Geneva and, no doubt, in Foreign Ministries. Many efforts were made to convince the Palestinians not to make the application, especially on the part of the USA and certain member states of the European Union (EU). It was repeatedly stated that UN membership could not replace direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The argument was reinforced by the threat of US and/or EU cutting off funding to the Palestinian Authority if a membership application were made. However, public threats are always counterproductive.

Both US and EU diplomats were particularly ineffective. Both started late in the day, had nothing other than threats to propose, and underestimated the changes that were going on in the Arab world — the Arab Spring. While the English have a tradition of professional diplomats — often a father-to-son tradition, — the two English non-professional diplomats involved, Baroness Catherine Ashton for the European External Action Service (EEAS) of the EU and Mr Tony Blair as representative of the non-existing Quartet (UN, EU, Russia, USA) are particularly incompetent.

It is not clear that even if the 27 EU members shared the same policy that they would have any impact on Middle East events. As it is, they have different evaluations of the situation and the EEAS is far from being a real diplomatic corps. European diplomacy is disintegrating as fast as the Euro zone is economically.

Likewise the US government, led by President Obama, has destroyed what little standing it had in the Middle East. The US started late to avert a Palestinian application but had nothing to propose, especially not when a US re-election campaign is starting. Russia, that other state member of the non-functioning Quartet, is also involved in presidential elections and so views the Middle East with a distracted eye even if its presidential campaigns are run differently from those in the USA. Although the ‘UN’ is a member of the Quartet, there is no ‘UN’. There are members of the Secretariat who have limited powers of initiative or there are member states. The Quartet has always been a phantom body.

Thus today, we find ourselves in a situation where there are no credible state actors who can serve as mediators. States are discredited by their actions and the incompetence of their representatives. We find ourselves largely in the same position as in 2003 when it became obvious to those who analysed deeply that the much praised 1993 Oslo agreement was going nowhere. Thus, a decade later, on December 1, 2003, in Geneva was presented publicly the “Geneva Initiative”, a ‘Track Two’ initiative facilitated by Alexis Keller, a professor of European political philosophy at the University of Geneva. His father, Pierre Keller, had been vice-president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, thus well aware of the techniques and difficulties of international negotiations. The Kellers’ Alpine chalet was scene of two-weeks of final drafting among a team of Israelis and Palestinians, some of whom had served in government. Because of violence and tensions, the Geneva Initiative had to be drafted in closed sessions so that there could be no public debate during the drafting stage. Once made public, the Geneva Initiative led to an enlightened debate at least for a short time. The Initiative held out the possibility for new and younger leadership in the Israeli-Palestinian society to come to the fore and to help rebuild constituencies for peace within both communities.

However, the Geneva Initiative hit against deadlocks, tired leadership and mutual fears and insecurity. Negotiations returned to being government led. While intellectually, most of the outlines for a ‘two-state solution’ have been set out, there has been little visible progress. Now the governments have played their role by drawing again world-wide attention to the Israel-Palestine issue and to the broader Middle East.

Although President Sarkozy has proposed a new conference of governments, it is not clear that governments can do more than ‘awareness building’. The times call for a rise of NGO mediators, probably a wider coalition than that formed around the Geneva Initiative. However, time is short. We need to watch closely the current negotiations to see which governments at the UN might play a positive role. There may be possibilities for government-NGO peace-builders to work together.

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