Sri Lanka’s vote at UN




On the 21st of December, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly against the unilateral position on Jerusalem adopted by the world’s sole superpower, the USA. The UNGA resolution expressed “deep regret” over decisions “concerning the status of Jerusalem” and that Jerusalem “is a final status issue to be resolved through negotiations in line with relevant UN resolutions.”


Sri Lanka voted in favour of the UNGA Resolution, joining a total of 128 countries, with 35 abstaining and 9 voting against. The vote paints a clear picture of world opinion on the matter, and the government of Sri Lanka is to be congratulated for standing on the right side of such an important international issue.


The entire affair also paints a picture of the United States at the UN. When the same resolution failed to be adopted at the Security Council last week, it was the US veto that was solely responsible, with the rest of the 14 members unanimous in their vote in favour.


In an interesting procedural maneuver, Turkey (a NATO member) and Yemen called for an Emergency session of the UNGA using Resolution 377 (adopted in 1950) to get around the Security Council veto, where they had earlier presented the same resolution. This was only the 10th ‘emergency special session’ of the UNGA in its history.


Resolution 377 says “if the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately with a view to making appropriate recommendations to Members for collective measures, including in the case of a breach of the peace or act of aggression the use of armed force when necessary, to maintain or restore international peace and security.”


Clearly, most of the UN member states agreed that any unilateral measure regarding the status of Jerusalem was an immediate threat to international peace and security, and that they had to do all they could to avert it. The US disagreed. It set about using its status as the world’s sole super power on whose largesse many less fortunate countries depended, aside from being the biggest contributor to the United Nations, to attempt to secure a vote against the resolution.


A letter of warning was dispatched by US ambassador Nicky Haley, who made it clear that those who voted against the US would suffer consequences. She wrote “As you consider your vote, I encourage you to know the President and the US take this vote personally…The President will be watching this vote carefully and has requested I report back on those who voted against us”. That letter made no difference to 128 countries who voted in favour and 35 countries hedged their bets by abstaining. There was an eruption of applause at the announcement of the results.


The US at the UN takes things very personally indeed. Before the UNGA vote, its Ambassador tweeted “we don’t expect those we’ve helped to target us”. However, it seems that the rest of the world doesn’t think this is appropriate. The majority of member states expect that important issues are evaluated in terms of humanity, peace and security, international law, and previous UN resolutions.


Six years earlier, during the Obama administration, a similar vote was held in Paris, at the UNESCO, where Palestine sought membership of that organization. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton flew to Paris to lobby the Ambassadors against the proposal. There too, the US threatened to withdraw funding to the UNESCO. The UNESCO’s General Conference of October 2011 took the risk and the resolution granting membership to Palestine passed with more than the required two-thirds majority. Sri Lanka played an active role to ensure its success. As captured in the world’s newspapers the next day, there was clapping, hugging and congratulations in the conference hall and the US lost no time in withholding its substantial contributions to the organization. UNESCO survived, also as the world’s moral conscience.


In this context, it seems fortunate that the world is heading away from unipolarity and resultant hegemonism. The Diplomat reported on December 15th that a US congressional committee tasked with investigating “national security implications of U.S.-China relations, including Chinese military plans, strategy and doctrine,” found that China is now “in its region, the dominant military power”.


The Diplomat also reports some concerns of those who find multipolarity worrying: “Beijing has also begun to flex its muscles on the world stage. On August 1, 2017, China opened its first permanent overseas military base in Djibouti, strategically located near the Gulf of Aden, adjacent to the Arabian Sea – and also a short drone flight away from Camp Lemonnier, a major US counterterrorism hub and America’s only permanent military base in Africa.”


China’s advances in unmanned aerial and underwater vehicles, had been on display at the Guangzhou Airshow in February 2017, where it is reported that China demonstrated “a record-breaking formation of 1,000 rotary-wing drones based on pre-programmed routes” causing worries according to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) that “such swarming techniques could be used to create a distributed armed system which, coupled with AI capabilities, could be used for saturating and overwhelming the defenses of high-value weapons platforms such as aircraft carriers. This could impact the outcome of a potential U.S.-Chinese engagement in the South or East China Sea.” (The Diplomat, 15th December)


This and other developments including ‘counter-space’ technology, shows impressive military accomplishment. Unfortunately when one big power is magnificently militarized, it is surely inevitable that others in their gun-sights would do the same.


Commenting on the new US National Security Strategy released this week, Defend Democracy Press warns that the document recommends “that a buildup of the US nuclear arsenal is ‘essential to prevent nuclear attack, nonnuclear strategic attacks, and large scale conventional aggression,’ strongly suggesting that the US military is prepared to launch a nuclear first strike in response to a nonnuclear challenge.” (Bill Van Auken, Defend Democracy Press, 22/12/2017)


While most people would rather see far less spent on weapon systems and more invested in food security in the world, and all big powers signed up to non-proliferation, it is still very much an aspiration. Reality dictates that it is better for less fortunate countries to have more than one such big power able to dictate terms and act as a deterrent. China has thus far not sat on us for UN votes.


China’s OBO Rand its financing by the Beijing led AIIB, the Export-Import Bank of China and China Development Bank, is also viewed with enormous suspicion.Many developing countries have found all these Chinese initiatives to have lifted them out of economic stagnation into renewed growth and connectivity.


Sri Lanka has seen its roads, its ports and its skyline change in a relatively short period precisely due to that massive investment. For a country emerging from a decades-long war having lost most of its budget and a large number of citizens to its bloody destructiveness, facing propaganda based war-crimes charges and an economy in need of assistance, the emergence of an Asian power willing to help it recover was clearly in its interest. Sri Lanka applied for observer status of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2012. It sees BRICS as a positive development, representing a powerful coalition of developing states from the South, able to influence decisions internationally.


Multipolarity gives us options. It is manifestly the case that threats will be issued and hands will be tied on issues, including important moral ones. It was a relief when Russia decisively stepped in to save the day in Syria, enabling enough of its economic infrastructure and state structure (bureaucracy) to be kept intact to begin rebuilding that country. Mercifully, Syria didn’t go the way of Iraq and Libya. Russia’s active role in fighting terrorism has brought positive results for the world. Sri Lanka has good relations with Russia, despite the recent ‘pest in the tea-chest’ and that could have been averted with a little forethought and timely discussions before the ban on asbestos.


Sri Lanka is not out of the woods yet internationally, with UN resolutions on allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The US threat on aid must weigh on the minds of its leaders. Then again, China’s influence in the region must weigh on the minds of the US. Sri Lanka has a history of maintaining the balance that is essential for a successful foreign policy. Both China and Russia, and the other emerging Asian economies, India and Indonesia, voted in favour of the UNGA resolution this week. Sri Lanka did well to exercise its moral duty along side them to retain its faith in the multilateral system to make this world a less dangerous place.


[The writer is author of ‘MISSION IMPOSSIBLE GENEVA’, Vijitha Yapa, Colombo, 2017]


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