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Kelly Knight Craft Is Quickly – and Smartly – Making Africa a Priority
Kelly Knight Craft Is Quickly – and Smartly – Making Africa a Priority
Myanmar at the International Court of Justice
Myanmar at the International Court of Justice
Op-Ed / United States

Kelly Knight Craft Is Quickly – and Smartly – Making Africa a Priority

Originally published in World Politics Review

How is Kelly Knight Craft doing as U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations?

It is almost exactly one month since Craft presented her credentials to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Sept. 12. It has been an eventful period, including the annual General Assembly jamboree and Security Council crisis talks on North Korea and Syria. To top it off, Guterres warned this week that the U.N. is about to run out of operating funds because over 60 members have not paid their annual dues. The U.S. has accumulated over $1 billion in arrears, equivalent to a third of the U.N.’s regular budget, putting Craft in a tricky spot.

Burdened with a long to-do list when she hit the ground in New York, Craft has had little time to set out her agenda. But she has dropped hints about her priorities, with a focus on Africa. Foreign diplomats will watch her position on the cash crunch closely.

The new ambassador’s immediate priority was to steer President Donald Trump through the General Assembly during the week of Sept. 23. This was a moment for self-effacement. All ambassadors recede into the background during the high-level gatherings of assembly week, letting their heads of state dominate proceedings. Trump gave a lackluster performance at the U.N., distracted by the threat of impeachment, but Craft got through the week with no big hiccups.

The General Assembly week aside, Craft has made an effort to engage earnestly in routine Security Council diplomacy. Her predecessor, Nikki Haley, largely avoided debates on African issues in her first months in New York in 2017, though she eventually gave them more weight as her term continued. By contrast, Craft has already attended council sessions on Mali and the Great Lakes region of Central Africa. She and her South African counterpart, Jerry Matjila, are also set to be co- leaders of a Security Council visiting mission to South Sudan later this month.

This early focus on Africa, and South Sudan in particular, is smart for several reasons.

Most immediately, South Sudan faces serious political risks in the coming weeks, as President Salva Kiir and his long-time rival Riek Machar are supposed to agree on a new government. If they fail to do so, there is a risk of new violence, leaving the already overstretched U.N. peacekeeping force in the country hard-pressed to protect civilians. The Security Council visit, and the clear demonstration of American interest in the process, may help prod the politicians toward a bargain, although Kiir has had fraught relations with the U.S. in the past.

In picking up the South Sudan issue, Craft has shown an instinct for focusing some American attention on crises that would otherwise stay below the radar.

Second, the decision to link up with South Africa is a clever way to strengthen ties with the strongest African state currently on the council. When the South Africans took their seat at the start of 2019, their initial instinct was to side with the Chinese and Russians on controversial topics like the Venezuelan crisis. But they were disappointed when Beijing and Moscow blocked the Security Council from

supporting the African Union’s efforts to mediate a transition to civilian rule in Sudan after the fall of former President Omar al-Bashir. Since then, the South Africans have been more open to working with the U.S. and Europeans in New York. Craft’s cooperation with Matjila on the South Sudan trip is a good way to cement that relationship.

It is also an opportunity for the U.S. ambassador to define some political space of her own on a topic that more-powerful players in the Trump administration, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, do not prioritize. As I argued earlier this year, Craft is unlikely to be a crucial figure in U.S. diplomacy over first-order national security concerns such as the Korean Peninsula and the Middle East, although she did use a Security Council session on the latter to affirm, as all U.S. ambassadors must, that she is a strong supporter of Israel. She can have a real impact in other parts of the world, though, and as I suggested when Haley announced she would be stepping down last October, Africa is one of them.

The Trump administration’s continuing lack of interest in using the U.N. as a platform to address higher-level national security concerns was made very clear this month, as North Korea conducted new missile tests and Turkey launched its latest incursion in Syria. In both cases, European members of the Security Council—led by France, Germany and the U.K.—insisted on holding emergency sessions after the U.S. failed to call for them. In the case of North Korea, the U.S. presumably did not want to harm its already strained diplomatic contacts with Pyongyang or create a sense of urgency about an issue Trump claims to have in hand. In the case of Syria, U.S. policy toward the Turkish operation has been so confused throughout the past week, it is not surprising that others took the lead in New York.

In such situations, the U.S. has little interest in promoting multilateral debates, and Craft and her team have little room for maneuver or creativity. This is not the ambassador’s fault, but it underlines the need for Craft to identify her own priorities on files where she can have an impact.

That said, it may be difficult for Craft to focus on many foreign crises while the U.N. goes through a financial crisis of its own in New York. Guterres has been warning for much of this year of shortfalls in the organization’s regular budget—which covers basic headquarters costs, like hosting meetings, but also its political missions in places like Libya—due to member states’ failure to pay their annual contributions.

This week, he declared that the U.N. may not be able to pay its staff in November, and Security Council members have been told to end their daily meetings at 6 p.m. sharp as there is no money to pay extra translators for the additional hours.

This is partly a bit of theater to put delinquent states on the spot—experts on U.N. financing think Guterres could get around the problem through ruses such as borrowing money from the separate peacekeeping budget. But it is a headache for Craft. The U.S. owes over $600 million in regular budget dues to the U.N. for this year, and almost $400 million for past years. (It also owes $2 billion to the peacekeeping budget Guterres could end up borrowing from.)

Washington normally doesn’t pay its full U.N. obligations until late October or November anyway, so this is not necessarily part of some grand U.S. plot against the U.N. But it is a distraction for Craft just as she is trying to establish her broader diplomatic agenda. She should do what she can to ensure that the U.S. fulfills its obligations to the U.N. regular budget as fast as it can. In picking up the South Sudan issue, the new ambassador has shown an instinct for focusing some American attention on crises that would otherwise stay below the radar. It will be harder to do that if she is bickering with other ambassadors over cash.

A billboard depicting Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Su Kyi with the three military ministers in front of a background showing the building of the International Court of Justice in The Hague is displayed along a main road in Hpa-an, Karen State. AFP
Q&A / Asia

Myanmar at the International Court of Justice

On 10 December, the International Court of Justice convened to hear an opening request in a genocide case filed against Myanmar for its atrocities against Rohingya Muslims. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Richard Horsey looks at the legal and diplomatic stakes of these proceedings.

Why is Myanmar before the International Court of Justice?

The Gambia has lodged a case against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the principal UN judicial body based in The Hague, alleging violations of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (usually known as the Genocide Convention) in Myanmar’s treatment of ethnic Rohingya Muslims. The charges stem from atrocities committed by Myanmar’s security forces in northern Rakhine State, which have forced over 700,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh since August 2017. The Gambia, relying on the Convention’s provision that the ICJ can adjudicate disputes over such charges, brought this case on behalf of the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. The allegations against Myanmar include responsibility for genocidal acts against the Rohingya and failure to prevent and punish genocide, among others.

The Gambia has also asked the ICJ to order “provisional measures”, the equivalent of an injunction in domestic law, authorising steps to protect the parties’ rights pending the case’s final adjudication. Hearings at the court from 10-12 December – at which Aung San Suu Kyi will represent Myanmar – are dealing with this request for provisional measures. Both The Gambia and Myanmar have retained top international lawyers as counsel.

The allegations against Myanmar include responsibility for genocidal acts against the Rohingya and failure to prevent and punish genocide, among others.

Two other countries – the Netherlands and Canada – have indicated that they will support The Gambia’s case. They have called on all state parties to the Genocide Convention to do the same. One possibility is that the Netherlands and Canada will become “intervening states”, a status that would give them access to court documents and the right to participate in oral proceedings, without being formal parties to the dispute.

A decision on provisional measures is expected within weeks. But the case itself will probably be long and convoluted, with the court taking years to render its final decision. The diplomatic and reputational impact is thus likely to be most immediate and consequential.

Why is Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s top civilian leader, speaking at the ICJ hearing this week and what does she hope to achieve?

In addition to a legal team, states involved in ICJ cases must nominate an “agent” empowered to represent the state and make commitments on its behalf. Aung San Suu Kyi is Myanmar’s agent, in her capacity as foreign minister (she also holds the title of state counsellor). A justice minister or an attorney general normally plays this role; it is extremely rare for a political figure of her prominence to do so. Aung San Suu Kyi likely feels that as the country’s de facto leader she has the primary responsibility to respond to The Gambia’s claims, and also that she is the person best qualified to do so – given her fluent English and experience on the world stage.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s public statements over the last two years, and what she is known to have said in private, suggest that she believes no genocide has occurred in the Rohingya case. She thinks that, on the contrary, the outside world has deeply misunderstood and exaggerated the Rohingya crisis. She no doubt intends to use the legal setting in The Hague to try to set the record straight. She also no doubt understands that the eyes of the world will be on her at this pivotal moment for Myanmar. The global audience – particularly in the West – will expect her to go much farther than she has in previous speeches in acknowledging the security forces’ wrongdoing and committing to address it. It remains to be seen how far she will go in this direction.

What impact will Aung San Suu Kyi’s appearance in The Hague have within Myanmar?

Views on the Rohingya crisis inside Myanmar are almost diametrically opposed to those outside the country. The near ubiquitous narrative in the country – coming from its leaders and promulgated by the local media – is that the outside world misunderstands what has happened with the Rohingya. Myanmar thinks that its primary problem is therefore one of communication: how to explain the “real situation” more clearly and effectively.

Since The Gambia filed the ICJ case on 11 November, and Aung San Suu Kyi decided to represent Myanmar personally in The Hague, a wave of nationalist fervour has swept the country. Billboards and mass rallies endorse her mission at the ICJ; even the military – her nemesis during fifteen years of house arrest – is giving her its unequivocal backing. The civilian government is likewise soliciting vocal support from the people for the state counsellor’s defence of the nation. President Win Myint’s wife even conducted a ritual at Aung San Suu Kyi’s “eternal peace pagoda” in Naypyitaw, invoking the spirits to confer success on her efforts.

Since [...] Aung San Suu Kyi decided to represent Myanmar personally in The Hague, a wave of nationalist fervour has swept the country.

This outpouring of support will play well for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in the November 2020 elections, though electoral advantage is unlikely to be her primary motivation. Her stance for Myanmar in The Hague could also lead to a slight thaw in the chilly relations between the civilian government and the military. But the risk is that unleashing the forces of narrow nationalism will not only silence voices calling for human rights protections and greater tolerance for diversity in the country but also postpone any honest national reckoning with what happened to the Rohingya. Such an accounting is the only way that Myanmar can get out of its international legal and diplomatic predicament.

What impact will the ICJ case have on international perceptions of Myanmar?

A moment of truth is fast approaching. Part of Aung San Suu Kyi’s international audience at The Hague will consist of some Asian governments that are determined to maintain close bilateral ties with Naypyitaw. She might say enough to satisfy them, but she will have more difficulty meeting the expectations of Western governments. It is hard to imagine, moreover, given the documentation of the Rohingya’s plight, that she will convince the many sceptical observers in the global media and civil society that Myanmar’s state is misunderstood and unfairly maligned. In defending Myanmar as part of proceedings live-streamed worldwide, she will necessarily be defending the military against genocide charges. Anyone can easily compare the substance of this defence with the numerous third-party reports about why so many Rohingya fled northern Myanmar and how they are living stuck in Bangladesh. Anyone can also read about the Rohingya who continue to live in precarious circumstances at home. Myanmar could lose in the court of international public opinion well before the ICJ makes any legal ruling.