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A diplomatic breakdown over “snapback” tests the UN
A diplomatic breakdown over “snapback” tests the UN
Kofi Annan’s Lessons in Global Leadership
Kofi Annan’s Lessons in Global Leadership
Op-Ed / United States

A diplomatic breakdown over “snapback” tests the UN

Originally published in The Interpreter

After the United States experienced a rebuff at the United Nations last week – with almost the entire membership of the Security Council rejecting its attempt to re-impose UN sanctions on Iran – US officials warned that the dispute could lead to a major crisis in the Council, damaging the institution’s authority.

They are not alone in this analysis. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, a vocal critic of the US sanctions drive, has accused Washington of risking “a very serious scandal and rift” at the UN.

But these dire predictions may prove to be exaggerated.

The argument pivots on the US claim that, acting on the UN resolution that endorsed the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), it can demand the reactivation of UN sanctions resolutions on Iran that were terminated as part of the bargain. The negotiators of the deal agreed on a complex process to “snap back” these resolutions if Tehran broke its commitments and other dispute resolution mechanisms failed. (A recent International Crisis Group report looks at this process in detail.)

When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the US was triggering the snapback process on 20 August, most of other Council members responded dismissively, for the simple reason that the Trump administration quit the JCPOA unilaterally in 2018. While the US has made a legal case that it retains the standing to initiate snapback, even its European allies at the UN argue that it has forfeited its right to do so in practical terms. They suspect that the Trump administration’s real goal is to provoke Iran to renounce the JCPOA, and so kill the Obama-era deal.

While Pompeo was laying out the US case in New York, Britain, France and Germany – the European signatories of the JCPOA – released a statement rejecting the move. Overall, 13 of the 15 Council members have informed the Indonesian UN ambassador, the current president of the Council, that they did not believe the US had the standing to trigger snapback. The one member left in the US camp is the Dominican Republic.

What happens next? The Council has 30 days to debate the topic, but it is hard to see serious diplomacy taking place now. In theory, under the rules of the snapback process, if the Council does not agree to maintain the termination of the pre-2015 sanctions resolutions – which centre on military imports and exports, as well as individual travel restrictions and a total ban on uranium enrichment – they will come back into force on 20 September. While the US will claim that those conditions apply, and its allies in the Persian Gulf may support the notion, most of the wider UN membership will not.

This will lead to a surreal situation in which the US and other Council members talk past each other about what sanctions are in force. This scenario will create headaches for UN officials handling sanctions and the Middle East. But it is hard to say if it will cause a bigger crisis at the UN.

Some diplomats fret that the Trump administration, which has a track record of boycotting multilateral organisations that irritate it, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), could respond by trying to disrupt other Security Council business. Yet there are limits to how disruptive it can be before it starts harming US interests in other areas. It is hard to imagine, for example, the US breaking off talks with China and Russia over the sanctions regime on North Korea – on which the three powers grudgingly cooperate at the UN – out of spite over Iran.

The US could threaten to withhold funding to the UN secretariat’s political, peacekeeping and disarmament branches to demonstrate its dissatisfaction over Iran. The UN is already struggling financially, so such a move would make the long-suffering Secretary-General António Guterres’s life even more difficult. But it would also be a propaganda win for the Chinese and Russians, which will take every opportunity to use this crisis to argue the US cannot be trusted at the UN.

The snapback spat will doubtless hurt relations between the US and its European counterparts at the UN, but their cooperation has not been that great during the Trump presidency anyway. In July, the US blocked a German resolution calling for a new UN envoy to deal with climate change and security. This month, the Americans threatened to veto the continued deployment of peacekeepers in southern Lebanon, a French priority, on the grounds that the Blue Helmets are soft on Hezbollah. Even the UK, usually the closest US ally in New York, has been frustrated by Washington’s failure to invest in UN diplomacy over Libya and Yemen.

While European diplomats expect the snapback debate to be messy, and speculate that Washington could also use tariffs and other economic measures to put pressure on those who oppose its efforts, the US has alienated its partners to such an extent that they appear willing to endure some additional unpleasantness. They might be warier if opinion polls suggested that Trump was on track for victory in this year’s presidential elections. But the Europeans for now seem more inclined to believe in a Biden victory, and thus see the main challenge as holding off Trump’s attack on the JCPOA until next year, when it may be possible to rebuild diplomacy over Iran with a new administration. If Trump wins, the JCPOA is dead anyway.

Some argue that the snapback debate will undermine the Security Council in other ways. The spectacle of council members bickering over sanctions on Iran could inspire some states to question the validity of other sanctions regimes. African governments have, for example, criticised council measures against countries like South Sudan that do not enjoy regional support, and could use the uncertainties over Iran to re-litigate these issues. But as the snapback mechanism is unique, the dispute offers little real ammunition for such arguments.

More fundamentally, this debacle raises longer-term doubts about the Council’s value as a venue for endorsing compromises among the big powers in an increasingly fragmented international system. The Iran deal’s negotiators believed that by embedding the agreement in a UN resolution they could better guarantee its implementation. If the Council cannot resolve its differences over snapback one way or another, the Council’s status as guarantor of such complex agreements will suffer.

Nonetheless, it is probably wise to see the snapback dispute as just one of the recurrent diplomatic breakdowns that have punctuated UN diplomacy on issues from the Balkans to Iraq and Syria since the end of the Cold War. Each time Council members hit an impasse, commentators hurry to say that the UN has reached a decisive or disastrous turning point. Yet time after time, Council members – and above all the Permanent 5 – manage to patch over their differences after a cooling-off period.

The Security Council may suffer a split over snapback, but it is unlikely to be terminal.

Kofi Annan’s Lessons in Global Leadership

Originally published in Project Syndicate

Sadly, principled statesmen and women who can forge bold, morally consistent responses to today's global problems are in short supply. We must therefore safeguard and promote the virtues that the former UN secretary-general embodied.

The world is facing a set of acute crises without recent parallel: a war in Europe that could escalate into a nuclear conflict, skyrocketing food prices that are hitting the poor the hardest, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the climate emergency. We need principled statesmen and women to forge bold, morally consistent responses to these and other global problems. Sadly, such leaders are in short supply.

Many politicians prefer to advocate polarizing policies, avoid hard choices, and deny the scale of the threats at hand. Others have tried to address these issues honestly. But those who favor cooperation and solidarity in dealing with global threats are on the defensive, as last year’s underwhelming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow and grossly unequal global access to COVID-19 vaccines clearly illustrate.

In times like these, we should recognize and honor those leaders who do try to tackle global challenges responsibly and constructively. Twenty-five years ago, one such figure, Kofi Annan, became UN secretary-general at another moment of global disorder, amid the political uncertainty and regional conflicts that followed the end of the Cold War. Although he could not have known it then, the UN system would soon face the traumas of 9/11 and the Iraq War.

Kofi led the UN with humanity and strategic vision. He revolutionized international development programming by launching the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the precursor of today’s Sustainable Development Goals. He built innovative partnerships such as the Global Fund – which brings together civil society, the private sector, and international agencies – to combat HIV/AIDS. He oversaw the dispatch of UN peacekeepers to stabilize and rebuild weak states, like Liberia, and help build new ones, like Timor-Leste. And he ushered in the idea of an international “responsibility to protect” the vulnerable from mass atrocities.

[Kofi Annan seeked] to make [the UN] more open, inclusive, and transparent.

As the UN’s administrator, Kofi cared deeply about the institution where he had spent most of his working life, seeking to make it more open, inclusive, and transparent. He was also the first secretary-general to develop a link between the UN and the private sector, and strongly supported civil society.

Moreover, he urged the major powers to reform the Security Council to reflect post-Cold War realities. He would not have been surprised by the Council’s current inaction over Ukraine, although it would not have deterred him from doing all he could to halt the conflict.

As a public figure, Kofi enjoyed a level of global recognition and respect that most national leaders he worked with could only envy. This was partly because he had a decency and instinctive respect for others that struck all those who met him. He brought out the best in his colleagues and could laugh with them – and at himself – even in moments of high pressure. He connected easily with young people, inspiring them and giving them hope. While UN officials respectfully referred to “Mr. Annan,” to many, including us, he was simply “Kofi.”

In addition to his personal qualities, Kofi grounded his leadership in certain basic principles. One of these was a deep respect for the rules and institutions of the post-war international order, reflected in the UN Charter, which he saw as undergirding peace and security.

This does not mean that he was always cautious. Although he could be pragmatic when necessary, he also took risks. In 1998, he traveled to Baghdad to meet with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in an effort to avert war in the Middle East, and he supported the establishment of the International Criminal Court, despite fierce opposition from successive US administrations.

[Kofi Annan] was dogged in his pursuit of peace, even where … the chances of success were slim.

To be sure, Kofi knew that not all of his diplomatic gambles would pay off. He was dogged in his pursuit of peace, even where – as with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the chances of success were slim. After stepping down as secretary-general at the end of 2006, he continued to work as a peacemaker in countries ranging from Kenya and Syria to Myanmar. He was sometimes frustrated, but he continued the demanding work of building relationships with mistrustful political actors until his death, in 2018.

Kofi was driven by a fundamental concern for the dignity and welfare of all people, especially the most vulnerable. This informed his advocacy for not only the MDGs but also fair elections and democratic institutions. He cast himself as a global advocate for the common good, arguing that countries shared a “common destiny” and that “we can master it only if we face it together.”

It is easy to admire Kofi’s virtues in retrospect, but it is more difficult than ever for leaders to replicate them in the present. In an era of populism and division, those who champion solidarity and unity – within or between countries – are often drowned out in public discourse. It is therefore vital to speak up more loudly on their behalf.

For this reason, our organizations – the Kofi Annan Foundation, the International Crisis Group, the International Peace Institute, and the Open Society Foundations – have joined forces to launch a new initiative to celebrate leaders who reflect Kofi’s qualities. Later this year, and in each succeeding year, we will invite a national leader or inspiring international figure to give a lecture in New York on the values of international cooperation. We will select the speakers based on their commitment to human rights, international solidarity, and the defense of the international system that characterized Kofi’s life and work.

“I have always believed that on important issues, the leaders must lead,” Kofi said in 2014. “Where the leaders fail to lead, and people are really concerned about it, the people will take the lead and make the leaders follow.” Now more than ever, we must safeguard, celebrate, and promote the virtues he embodied.

For more information about the Kofi Annan Lecture series see here.

Contributors

Nane Annan
Wife of the late Kofi Annan, nutrition advocate, artist, and former lawyer
President & CEO
EroComfort
Susana Malcorra
Co-Chairs Crisis Group, former foreign minister of Argentina
Mark Malloch-Brown
Member of Crisis Group's Executive Committee, former deputy United Nations secretary-general, co-chair of the UN Foundation, and President of the Open Society Foundations
Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein
Former UN high commissioner for human rights, President of the International Peace Institute