OPINION: Obama: The cold logic of mass graves
Published: Sep 28, 2013
U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on September 24 should rank as a rare breath of fresh air in a body that for decades has been accustomed mostly to rant and rhetoric.
Obama spoke truth to power in a refreshingly frank and painstaking manner. Given the turmoil that exists in the Middle East, his remarks on Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflict received the most media attention. Important though those remarks are, Obama said a lot more to which the world should be paying keen attention.
Of particular significance are his remarks about policing the world and protecting people from conflicts both across borders and within territorial boundaries. While the U.S. is accused of intervening in the affairs of states in pursuit of its own objectives, the president pointed out that “the danger for the world is not an America that is too eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries”. The danger is that the United States “may disengage creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill”.
He sounded a warning that should not be ignored. “When America’s core interests are not directly threatened we stand ready to do our part to prevent mass atrocities and protect basic human rights. But we cannot and should not bear that burden alone.”
In the absence of a standing U.N. army that is empowered to intervene to stop wars between states and civil wars within them, the global community has looked to the U.S. to use what he called “the sacrifice of its blood and its treasure” to stand up for the interests of all. No other nation has shown itself able or willing to perform this crucial policing task without which many regions of the world would become increasingly unstable.
Obama returned to the beliefs that he had set out in his first campaign for the presidency. He said: “Objectives can rarely be achieved through unilateral American action, particularly through military action. These objectives are best achieved when we partner with the international community and with the countries and peoples of the [affected] region.”
But, he made it clear that his government was prepared to secure its “core interests” in the Middle East including by using military force. He identified core interests as external aggression against America’s allies; the free flow of energy to the world (though he stressed that the U.S. is reducing its own dependence on imported oil); terrorist networks; and the development or use of weapons of mass destruction. While he identified these as America’s core interests, they should also be the interests of all five veto states of the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) and of responsible governments the world over. In this regard, in an ideal world, the UNSC should act together to secure these interests. But jockeying for advantage over one another continues to dominate the actions of the veto states and so stymies joint action and perpetuates conflicts in regions and states.
In less publicized aspects of his important speech, Obama made the point that “sovereignty cannot be a shield for tyrants to commit wanton murder, or an excuse for the international community to turn a blind eye”.
In Syria, as Obama pointed out, as the country was exploding into sectarian violence and civil war, “the international community recognized the stakes early on, but the response has not matched the scale of the challenge”.
He asked the searching question: “Should we really accept the notion that the world is powerless in the face of [the atrocities in] Rwanda or Srebrenica?” He answered his own question with a transfixing observation: “If that’s the world people want to live in, they should say so and reckon with the cold logic of mass graves.”
Obama declared in a haunting phrase: “We live in a world of imperfect choices.” It is a phrase that assumes a compelling relevance in today’s world where there are fewer wars between states and more wars within states. The U.N. was created to deal with the former, not the latter. The notions of “sovereignty” and “non-interference in the internal affairs of states” have provided cover for opposing forces within states to slaughter innocent people including children while the world sits by as mere spectators.
Increasingly, this is the issue that the United Nations will have to face in the future. So far, it has done little but to sidestep it in the UNSC and to ignore it in the UNGA.
The world ought not to hold its breath for change in the U.N. to democratize the UNSC by getting rid of the veto powers of its five permanent members, or for an amendment to the Charter to expressly address dealing with conflicts and civil wars within states. The vested interests of each of the five veto states and their allies will ensure the continuing contradiction of an undemocratic process controlling a Charter that stipulates the pursuit of democracy as a core objective.
On September 24, Barack Obama carefully and conscientiously explained the grave dangers and the perilous pitfalls that confront the world in a way no contemporary world leader has even tried to do. Did other leaders listen, and were they motivated to act? That remains very doubtful. But whatever comes of his summons for a more peaceful, prosperous and just world, the international community is fortunate today to have Barack Obama as president of the globe’s still most powerful state.