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Palestinian Status at the UN: Breaking the Logjam

In Conflict Resolution, Current Events, Middle East & North Africa, The Search for Peace, United Nations on June 30, 2011 at 7:44 PM


By René Wadlow

There is a good deal of discussion in the halls of the United Nations (UN), both in New York and Geneva, concerning a possible application of full membership in the UN by the Palestinian Authority. The discussions reflect similar discussions within Foreign Ministries in the hope that there can be an agreed-upon program of action (or non-action) by September when the new General Assembly meets. Currently Palestine has observer status at the UN from a time when liberation movements were given observer status — two organizations for South Africa, one for South West Africa as Namibia was then, and for the PLO. With the changes in South Africa and Namibia, the liberation movement observer status was dropped for the three, and only the PLO remained.

In practice, there is little effective difference between observer status and full membership. Observers cannot vote, but voting in the UN has been largely replaced by ‘consensus making’. Effectiveness for all countries except for a small number of Great Powers depends on the skills of the diplomats which represent them. The Vatican has only observer status but a good deal of influence due to an effective diplomatic team. The Palestinian diplomats in Geneva have been weak, in New York somewhat stronger. The Palestinian diplomats have always been in the shadows of the representatives of the Arab States who want to play ‘Big Brother’, but with the exception of Egypt which has always had a strong core of diplomats, the Arab diplomats have rarely been more competent than the Palestinians.

Being overshadowed by the larger Arab States would probably not change even if full membership is granted, but full membership would be a symbolic victory of legitimacy and open the door to the independent use of the World Court. As Mahmoud Abbas has written “Palestine’s admission to the United Nations would pave the way for the internationalization of the conflict as a legal matter, not only a political one. It would also pave the way for us to pursue claims against Israel at the United Nations, human rights treaty bodies and the International Court of Justice.”

The Middle East came this close to peace when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993.

As of now, there are a number of variations being discussed around three possible approaches:

1)      The first approach favored by the USA, some of the Western European members of the European Union, in particular Germany, and a few others including Israel is that the issue should go away. It is felt that there are enough problems in the world, especially in the Middle East not to have a complicated procedural battle in September. This has been the ‘advice’ given to the Palestinians by the US, Canada, and some Western European States. It may be also what some of the Arab States are saying more privately. To reinforce their arguments, the US and the Western European governments have a strong card — they can cut off funding to the Palestinian Authority. The pretext would be the Hamas support or participation in a ‘unity government’ even if such a government is made of ‘non-political technocrats’. Hamas is still listed by the USA and the European Union as a ‘terrorist organization’ and so cannot receive funds from the US or EU governments. The Palestinian Authority depends largely on external financing; thus cutting off financing is an argument that carries weight — even if it is called ‘blackmail’ in other settings.

In exchange for dropping the full membership application, there would be some sort of short Israel-Palestine meeting where each side would speak of a ‘peace process’ through September when the membership issue has gone by. Such a sleight of hand will not advance real negotiations but may ‘buy time’ which is what many governments now want.

2)      There is, however, a real possibility that the Palestinian Authority will ask for full membership in September. This will depend in part on discussions among the Palestinian leadership and the views of the three key States concerning the Middle East: Egypt, Turkey, and Iran. Iran which is one of the Vice Presidents of the upcoming General Assembly will be particularly influential in procedural matters. The UN Charter states that the admission of new members “will be effected by a decision of the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council”. The Council makes its membership recommendation through a resolution; thus it must be approved by at least nine of the Council’s 15 members and not be vetoed by the one of the five permanent members. If the USA abstains — abstentions are not considered a veto — it is likely that there would be at least nine positive votes for Palestinian membership in the Security Council. Then it is most likely that the General Assembly would follow the Security Council recommendation as it has always done in the past. Thus current discussions turn around what could convince the US to abstain rather than veto. We will return to this key issue after a consideration of a third possibility.

3)      The third possibility in the case of a US veto is to move the issue to the General Assembly under what is known now as the “Uniting for Peace” mechanism. UN General Assembly resolution 377(V) of November 3, 1950, first known as ‘the Acheson Plan’ from the name of the US Secretary of State who proposed it and later renamed Uniting for Peace states that in cases where the UN Security Council fails to act to maintain international peace and security, owing to disagreement among the five permanent members, the matter shall be discussed immediately by the General Assembly. If the General Assembly is not in session, an Emergency Special Session can be called. This procedure has been used 10 times since its 1950 start. (1) As from September to December, the General Assembly will be in session, a Special Session will not have to be called. For a resolution to pass under the Uniting for Peace mechanism, there must be a 2/3 majority, meaning now 135 States if all are present and voting. However, not being present is a ‘diplomatic’ way of not having to be seen making a choice. Currently, 112 UN members recognize a Palestinian State within the pre-1967 frontiers. What cannot be analyzed is how hard the USA and some of its allies would work to prevent the 135 positive voters.

To turn back to the Security Council procedure, we can ask could there be a ‘deal’ that would satisfy no one completely but not dissatisfy any of the five permanent powers to the extent of their casting a veto. Here we can turn to precedent because at the UN everything functions by precedent. If something has been done once, one can argue that it can be done again. If it has never been done, it takes an exceptional situation and a few highly skilled diplomats to get any innovation.

A picture of the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin after he was shot dead on November 4, 1995 by an Israeli nationalist named Yigal Amir.

Thus we can turn to the 1954 period and the breaking of the ‘logjam’ on membership. During the first ‘hot round’ of the Cold War — the June 1950 to July 1953 Korean War — the Soviet Union and the USA blocked each other’s potential allies from UN membership. At the end of the Korean War, there was a host of pending membership applications on which no progress had been made. There seemed to be little possibility of moving things forward.

The 1954 membership issue was my start at looking closely at diplomatic negotiations around procedural issues at the UN. At a time when I should have spent my time chasing girls, I was a university student representative on the Executive Committee of what was then the United World Federalists in the USA. In 1955, the issue of a review conference on the UN Charter was to be placed automatically on the agenda of the General Assembly. During the 1945 negotiations that led to the creation of the UN Charter, a review conference on the Charter after 10 years was to be placed on the agenda. This was a demand of some of the smaller States at San Francisco, in particular Australia. It was expected in 1945 that such a review conference would be held and that was still the expectation in the period 1953-1954. There was a good deal of reflection on how to improve and strengthen the Charter during such a Review Conference. Universal membership was one of the demands of UN reformers, both some diplomats and activists such as those in the United World Federalists who had taken a lead on the Charter Review issue.

However, both the USA and the USSR opposed holding a Charter Review conference and brought most of their allies along with them. The result was that when the Charter Review conference came upon on the agenda, it was swept under the rug, and there has never been a review. Nevertheless, the diplomats of the USA and the USSR felt that some of the ‘steam’ for a Review Conference had to be lowered and this could be done by getting rid of ‘universal membership’ as an issue. Negotiations to break the logjam on pending applications started with the aim of making as close-to-possible balance between pro-USA, pro-USSR and neutral States entering the UN. The negotiations were carried out in 1954 and in 1955, before the debate on Charter Review, the membership logjam broke and Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Laos, Libya, Nepal, Portugal, Romania, Spain and Sri Lanka entered the UN. Japan should have been part of the group, but there was still the “enemy states” clause in the Charter which took more negotiations concerning Japan. Japan only came in the next year, 1956.

Dean Acheson, the U. S. Secretary of State who fathered the Uniting for Peace procedure at the United Nations.

Can there be something comparable in September? In an article “Coming in from the Cold: UN Membership Needed for the Phantom Republics”, I suggested at the time of the Georgia-Abkhazia-South Ossetia conflict that Abkhazia, Chechnya, Kosovo, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia and Transnistra be given UN membership as a necessary first step for security and a lessening of tensions. I had stressed that “to find mutually acceptable forms of government in these conflicts will require political creativity (breaking out of thinking in fixed patterns) and then new forms of constitutional order such as renewed forms of federal-confederal types of government, greater popular participation in decision-making and new forms of protection of minorities. Flexibility, compromise and cooperation are the hallmarks of success when it comes to resolving such conflicts concerning independence and autonomy. There is a need for a healing of past animosities and a growth of wider loyalties and cooperation.”

Both diplomats and members of the UN secretariat as well as secretariat of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe where I had also floated the idea explained in detail why such a joint membership procedure would not happen. None the less, if we added upgrading the status of Palestine in the UN, another membership logjam might be broken. The point I have repeatedly made is that membership does not solve difficulties; it just provides a framework where serious negotiations might be carried out. The 1955 access to membership of Cambodia and Laos did not ‘solve’ the Indochina conflict. The French-led war in Vietnam was still going on, to be followed a decade later by the US-led war.

Thus, I think that a world citizen position is that full Palestinian membership in the UN will not ‘solve’ all the Israel-Palestine issues, and certainly not the issues of the wider Middle East. However UN membership will allow the Palestinians to come out from the shadows of the Arab States and to negotiate with the Israelis as equals. Such is a very modest step forward but it is worth taking.

(1)   For a useful discussion of the background to the Uniting for Peace procedure see Dean Acheson Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department (New York: W. W. Norton, 1969, chapters 47-51)


René Wadlow is Senior Vice President and Chief Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.

World Citizens Call for a Halt to Armed Violence against the Kachin and to Facilitate the Return of Kachin Refugees from China to Burma

In Asia, Conflict Resolution, Human Rights on June 22, 2011 at 10:23 PM


On June 20, the United Nations-designated World Day for Refugees, the Association of World Citizens appealed to the Government of Myanmar (Burma) to halt the new round of violence against the Kachin national minority.  The fighting erupted on June 9, 2011 and has already led to thousands of persons being displaced and others fleeing as refugees into China. Such a halt would be in keeping with President Thein Sein’s March 2011 inaugural address to the newly elected Parliament where he said that the door for peace is open.

In a separate Appeal to the Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China, René Wadlow, Senior Vice President and Chief Representative to the United Nations (UN), Geneva of the Association of World Citizens, called upon China to help in mediating the conflict between the Myanmar military and the armed insurgency, the Kachin Independence Army.  Until calm and security is re-established in the Kachin and Northern Shan States of Myanmar, refugees should be granted refuge in China.

China, after many years of support for the communist-led Kachin insurgency, stopped its aid at some point in the 1980s, cutting off the supply lines through China.  The communist leadership of the Kachin was then replaced by less ideological and more ethnic-nationalist leaders. The Chinese government saw its interest in supporting the Myanmar government, and China has become the chief trading partner of Myanmar. Thus China is well placed to play a mediation role.

The Kachin are originally from Tibet and have migrated into Burma and the Yunnan Province of China over the last 200 years.  Thus the Kachin have fellow ethnic members who care for them when they cross the frontier into Yunnan.  However, the Chinese government does not like refugees, having less control over them.  Thus it would be in the interest of China to help restore security in Kachin State which since March has its own State Parliament.

There have been on-and-off cease-fire agreements between the Myanmar government and most of the national minority armed insurgencies.  The most recent cease-fire agreement with the Kachin dates from 1994, and thus world citizens can call for the application of the 1994 accord.

The reasons for the current outbreak of armed violence are unclear.  As Edith Mirante wrote in her account of the insurgencies in Burma “This was a terrible, filthy war.  There was nothing cool or little about it.  There was no rationale, no justification for its having gone on for so long.  Apparently wars didn’t have expiration dates like milk cartons.  Sometimes they just didn’t end.” (Edith Mirante, Burmese Looking Glass (New York: Grove Press, 1993, p116).

Myanmar faces two basic and related issues: the installation of democratic government and a constitutional system which allows autonomy to the national minorities.  Both tasks are difficult.  There is little democratic tradition or ethos upon which to structure a democratic government.  The majority of the seats in the newly-elected national Parliament is held by serving military officers or by officers who “retired” so they could run for Parliament as civilians.  Likewise there is little “national vision” or pluralistic leadership among the national minorities. What leadership exists both in the national government and among the ethnic minorities is often motivated by personal and clanic interests, and leaders recruit allies similarly motivated. Only peace will allow new leadership to emerge with broader motivations and allow all citizens to participate freely in a renewed political process.

Therefore, there needs to be an immediate cessation of hostilities and then efforts to strengthen the processes of the newly created Kachin Parliament.

The Ambassadors of Myanmar and China were assured that the Association of World Citizens will continue to follow the situation closely and was ready to help in whatever way a non-governmental organization could be of use.

June 21: A Day of Balance and Harmony

In Cultural Bridges on June 21, 2011 at 12:07 AM


By René Wadlow


The 21st day of June, the Summer Solstice, is in many cultures the cosmic symbol of balance and harmony between light and dark, between the universal and the local, between giving and receiving, between women and men, and between our inner and outer worlds. History records humanity’s preoccupation with the sun’s annual cycle.  Sites such as Stonehenge in England are thought to have been erected specifically to trace the path of the sun through the heavens.

The sun has always had symbolic meaning. As the ancient Sanskrit prayer, the Gayatri, tells us, the sun is a disc of golden light giving sustenance to the universe. Plato used the image of the sun to represent the idea of the One, the Good.

In Ancient Egypt, summer solstice was the most important day of the year.

There is an old tradition attributed to Hermes Trismegistus and the Emerald Tablet which says “that which is below is like that which is above, and that which is above is like that which is below”.  Thus, the cosmic growth of light should be reflected in our lives in greater light, greater awareness, greater understanding.

Sunrise Solstice at Stonehenge, England, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

June 21 is a day of recognition of the world-wide increase of light which transforms ignorance. It is a day in which we celebrate illumination as it dispels darkness.  It is a day during which we can all recognize the growth of greater awareness and concern for the common good. We recognize our need to redouble our efforts to restore a golden balance within the natural world.

Due to the work of the United Nations, people throughout the world are recognizing their responsibility to each other and are attempting to resolve ancient and entrenched global problems. June 21 marks our dedication to balance and harmony, to ecologically-sound development and to following a path of light.

Due to the work of the United Nations, people throughout the world are recognizing their responsibility to each other.

René Wadlow is Senior Vice President and Chief Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.

June 17: A UN Emphasis on the Wise Use of Dry Lands

In Africa, Environmental protection, Human Development, Solidarity on June 17, 2011 at 7:30 PM


By René Wadlow

The World Day to Combat Desertification, June 17 each year, was proclaimed by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in resolution A/RES/49/1995. The day has been observed since 1995. However United Nations efforts on Desertification began in 1977 with the UN Conference on Desertification held in Nairobi. The desertification conference was convened by the UN General Assembly in the midst of a series of catastrophic droughts in the Sudano-Sahelian region of Africa. The conference was designed to be the centerpiece of a massive worldwide attack to arrest the spread of deserts or desert-like conditions not only in Africa south of the Sahara but wherever such conditions encroached on the livelihood of those who lived in the desert or in their destructive path. The history of the conference is vividly recalled by James Walls in his book Land, Men and Sand (New York: Macmillan, 1980).

At the conference, there was a call for the mobilization of human and financial resources to hold and then push back the advancing desert. “Attack” may have been the wrong word and “mobilization” too military a metaphor for the very inadequate measures taken later in the Sudano-Sahelian area. Today, in 2011, there are real possibilities of famine in West and East Africa on the edges of the desert. Niger and Mali and parts of Senegal and Chad in the Sahel belt are facing the consequences of serious drought as are parts of northern Kenya and Somalia.

The most dramatic case is that of Darfur, Sudan which partakes of the Sahel drought but which also faces a war in which the conflicts between pastoralists and settled agriculturalists have become politicized. It is estimated that 300,000 have been killed since the start of the war late in 2003. Some two and a half million people have been uprooted. The agricultural infrastructure of homes, barns and wells has been deliberately destroyed. It will be difficult and costly to repair this destruction. The Darfur conflict highlights the need for a broader approach to the analysis and interpretation of active and potential armed conflicts in the Sahel region. This analysis needs to take into consideration the impact of environmental scarcity and climate variation in complex situations.

A settlement in the semi-desert north of El Fasher, Northern Darfur.

Earth is our common home, and therefore all, as world citizens, must organize to protect it. It is up to all of us concerned with ecologically-sound development to draw awareness to both the dangers and the promises of deserts. What is the core of the desertification process? The destruction of land that was once productive does not stem from mysterious and remorseless forces of nature but from the actions of humans. Desertification is a social phenomenon. The causes of dry land degradation include overgrazing, deforestation, agricultural mismanagement, fuel wood over-consumption, and industry and urbanization. Thus, by preventing land degradation and improving agricultural practices, action to combat desertification can lead to increased agricultural productivity and alleviate poverty. Humans are both the despoiler and the victim of the process. Increasingly, populations are eking out a livelihood on a dwindling resource, hemmed in by encroaching plantations and sedentary agriculturalists, by towns and roads. Pressure of population upon resources leads to tensions which can burst into violence as we see in Darfur and which spilled over into eastern Chad.

Desertification needs to be seen in a holistic way. If we see desertification only as aridity, we may miss areas of impact such as the humid tropics. We need to consider the special problems of water-logging, salinity or alkalinity of irrigation systems that destroy land each year. The value of UN-designated Days is the creation of a process of identifying major clusters of problems, bringing the best minds to bear on them so as to have a scientific and social substratum on which common political will can be found and from which action will follow.

Desertification is a plague that upsets the traditional balance between people, their habitat, and the socio-economic systems by which they live. Because desertification disturbs a region’s natural resource base, it promotes insecurity. Insecurity leads to strife. If allowed to degenerate, strife results in inter-clan feuding, civil war, cross-border raiding and military confrontation. Yet dry land communities have great resources that can be put to fighting poverty and desertification, provided they are properly empowered and supported.

In China, desertification spreads 1,300 square miles per year.

Only with a lessening of insecurity can cultivators and pastoralists living in or near deserts turn their attention to adapting traditional systems. There can be no reversion to purely traditional systems. But for insecurity to abate, a lengthy process of conciliation must begin and forms of conflict resolution strengthened. People must be encouraged to understand that diversity is a crucial element of ecologically-sound development. Judicious resource management breeds security and an improved quality of life for everyone. We can see what efforts can be made to encourage reforestation and to slow the unwanted advances of deserts.

The contrast between widespread rural poverty and environmental degradation, on the one land, and the opportunities which can be created on a small scale through community empowerment, access to groundwater and sustainable land management, defines the ideals of the Day. The Day is not about fighting deserts, it is about reversing land degradation trends, improving living conditions and alleviating poverty in rural dry lands. Thus, the World Day to Combat Desertification can be a Day during which we can learn more of the lives of the people in and on the edge of the deserts.

Even trees can grow in the desert ... A sign of hope indeed. Now let's act on it.

Deserts can also have a positive image. There is a significant role in the literature and mythology of spirituality — the 40 years in the desert before entering the “Promised Land” of Israel, the 40 days in the desert before starting his mission for Jesus, the life in the desert of the early Christian church fathers. Today, there are an increasing number of spiritual retreats in the desert chosen for its silence and for the essential nature of the landscape. Thus, during this Day our emphasis must not be on “combat” but on wise and ecologically-sound use of dry lands.

René Wadlow is Senior Vice President and Chief Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.

Let My Children Go: World Efforts to Eliminate the Worst Forms of Child Labor

In Children's Rights, Human Development, Human Rights, Solidarity, World Law on June 11, 2011 at 11:52 PM



By René Wadlow


June 12 is a red letter day on the United Nations (UN) agenda of events as the World Day against Child Labor. It marks the June arrival in 1998 of hundreds of children in Geneva, part of the Global March against Child Labor that had crossed 100 countries to present their plight to the International Labor Organization (ILO).

“We are hurting, and you can help us” was their message to the assembled International Labor Conference which meets each year in Geneva in June. One year later, in June, the ILO had drafted ILO Convention N° 182 on child labor which 165 States have now ratified — the fastest ratification rate in the ILO’s 89-year history.

The ILO is the only UN organization with a tripartite structure, governments, trade unions and employer associations are all full and equal members. All the other UN bodies are governments-only with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) playing a “fifth wheel” role. Yet NGOs within the UN system as a whole played an important role in highlighting children working in circumstances that put their physical, mental and social development at risk, children working in situations where they are exploited, mistreated and denied the basic rights of a human being. Today, millions of children, especially those living in extreme poverty, have no choice but to accept exploitive employment to ensure their own and their family’s survival. However, the ILO is the UN agency most directly related to conditions of work. Thus the ILO has often been an avenue for ‘unheard voices’ to be heard, usually through the trade union representatives; more rarely the employer representatives have played a progressive role.

The flag of the International Labor Organization.

Child labor and the increasing cross-frontier flow of child labor did not have a high profile on the long agenda of pressing labor issues until the end of the 1990s. At the start of the 1990s, there was only one full-time ILO staff member assigned to child labor issues; now there are 450, 90 percent in the field.

Child labor was often hidden behind the real and non-exploitive help that children bring to family farms. However, such help often keeps children out of school and thus outside the possibility of joining the modern sector of the economy. The ILO estimates that of the some 200 million child laborers in the world, some 70 percent are in agriculture, 10 percent in industry/mines and the others in trade and services — often as domestics or street vendors in urban areas. Globally, Asia accounts for the largest number of child workers — 122 million, Sub-Saharan Africa, 50 million, and Latin America and the Caribbean, 6 million. Young people under 18 make up almost half of humanity, a half which is virtually powerless in relation to the other half. To ensure the well-being of children and adolescents in light of this imbalance of power, we must identify attitudes and practices which cause invisibility.

The grim faces of child labor: In El Salvador, a 4-year-old girl and her 6-year-old brother working to fill coal bags.

But statistics are only one aspect of the story. It is important to look at what type of work is done and for whom. The image of the child helping his parents on the farm can hide wide-spread bonded labor in Asia. Children are ‘farmed out’ to others for repayment of a debt with interest. As the interest rates are too high, the debt is never paid off and ‘bonded labour’ is another term for a form of slavery.

In Africa, children can live at great distances from their home, working for others with no family ties and thus no restraints on the demands for work. Girls are particularly disadvantaged as they often undertake household chores following work in the fields. Schooling for such children can be non-existent or uneven at best. There is often a lack of rural schools and teachers. Rural school attendance is variable even where children are not forced to work. Thus, there is a need for better coordination between resources and initiatives for rural education and the elimination of exploitive child labor.

There is still a long way to go to eliminate exploitive child labor. Much child labor is in what is commonly called the non-formal sector of the economy where there are no trade unions. Child labor is often related to conditions of extreme poverty and to sectors of the society where both adults and children are marginalized such as many tribal societies in Asia, or the Roma in Europe or migrant workers in general.

Thus, the task of both governments and NGOs is to understand better the scope of exploitive child labor, its causes, the possibility of short-term protection of children and the longer-range efforts to overcome exclusion and poverty.


René Wadlow is Senior Vice President and Chief Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.

Femmes en Arabie Saoudite: Quand Dieu punit la moitié du ciel

In Current Events, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, Women's Rights, World Law on June 9, 2011 at 7:58 PM



Par Bernard Henry


Le 31 mai et le 1er juin derniers, à travers deux appels signés par son Officier de Presse, le Bureau de Représentation auprès de l’Office des Nations Unies à Genève de l’Association of World Citizens (AWC) a interpellé le gouvernement d’Arabie Saoudite au sujet des droits des femmes, que la monarchie saoudienne n’a jamais vraiment reconnus et dont l’absence devient de plus en plus pénalisante pour les femmes du pays.

Et pour cause – contrairement à la plupart des pays du monde, du moins ceux où il existe une religion officielle, a fortiori quand il s’agit de l’Islam, le « royaume wahhabite », ainsi nommé parce qu’il consacre la doctrine de l’Islam développée au dix-huitième siècle par Mohammed ibn Abd el-Wahhâb, lequel souhaitait ramener l’Islam à sa « pureté d’origine » et rejetait du fait toute tradition extérieure au Coran, considère son territoire tout entier comme une mosquée, prohibant en conséquence tout autre culte que le culte musulman, et encore, tel que le conçoit l’Etat saoudien uniquement.

En règle générale, l’Islam sunnite se désolidarise du wahhabisme qu’il estime sectaire et extrémiste. Ainsi des Talibans d’Afghanistan, dont l’ « Emirat islamique » ne fut reconnu que par trois pays au monde – les Emirats Arabes Unis, le Pakistan et, bien sûr, l’Arabie Saoudite, qui s’était retrouvée à ce sujet en confrontation directe avec l’Iran de Mohammed Khatami, l’Iran chiite pour lequel les Talibans étaient des « fossiles » du sunnisme.

Une minorité chiite existe toutefois en Arabie Saoudite, et parfois, comme ici, des heurts ont lieu avec la majorité wahhabite qui tolère mal l'existence sur le sol saoudien d'une communauté religieuse, même musulmane, autre que la sienne.

Que l’on n’aille pas y voir pour autant une quelconque intention de l’AWC de s’acharner contre l’Arabie Saoudite en particulier. Les droits des femmes sont l’un des sujets qui sont pour nous les plus importants en matière de Droits de l’Homme, et nous avons interpellé dans ce cadre les gouvernements de pays aussi éloignés les uns des autres, tant géographiquement que culturellement, que le Canada, le Paraguay, l’Afrique du Sud, la Guinée-Conakry, la Belgique, l’Afghanistan, l’Australie et bien d’autres encore. Mais force est de constater qu’un système saoudien bien particulier, mêlant droit et religion – et encore, religion prise dans un sens outrageusement littéral et rétrograde – ne favorise guère le changement, celui que l’on doit pourtant bien entreprendre sitôt que l’on réalise le caractère essentiel du respect des droits des femmes si l’on veut que le pays que l’on dirige puisse connaître et la paix civile et le progrès social, l’un comme l’autre étant impossibles quand les femmes sont tenues en état d’infériorité, une infériorité qui atteint aujourd’hui les confins de l’absurde et devient du fait, pour les Saoudiennes, un poids de plus en plus lourd à porter.

La première question que nous avons donc soulevée auprès des autorités saoudiennes est celle de la tutelle masculine.

Celle-ci s’applique aux femmes saoudiennes quel que soit leur âge, mais les plus touchées sont indéniablement les jeunes femmes, car elles ne peuvent prétendre étudier sans l’accord préalable d’un tuteur masculin reconnu par la loi. Par ce système, une jeune femme peut être privée d’études à tous les niveaux, y compris dans le supérieur, et si elle ne l’est pas, elle ne peut choisir sa discipline universitaire sans l’accord de son tuteur. Quand bien même il lui est généreusement accordé d’aller à l’université, des restrictions de mouvement lui sont imposées lorsqu’elle s’y trouve, des restrictions qui font que, même en cas de maladie, elle ne peut quitter les lieux. Et s’il n’y avait que les étudiantes à être visées …  Même les enseignantes, pendant les heures de cours, sont soumises à la séquestration, leurs élèves (féminines) ne pouvant elles-mêmes sortir que si un tuteur masculin ou un conducteur désigné est venu les chercher.

Une femme en Arabie Saoudite doit constamment porter le voile, ainsi qu'une longue robe noire couvrante dénommée l'abaya.

Et de toute façon, avant de rentrer chez elles, qu’ont-elles bien pu étudier ? Ce à quoi leur tuteur masculin a consenti, certes. Mais pas l’ingénierie, l’architecture ou les sciences politiques, car dans le système saoudien, qui n’est pas mixte, aucun programme universitaire public n’existe dans ces domaines pour les femmes, tous les autres n’étant offerts que dans une qualité, et en quantité, inférieure à celle dont profitent leurs homologues mâles. Cela touche tant les infrastructures, les cours étant proposés dans des bâtiments délabrés, que les équipements pédagogiques, les bibliothèques réservées aux femmes étant sous-équipées et les bibliothèques mixtes ne leur étant que d’un accès limité. Certaines universités saoudiennes vont jusqu’à ne pas s’embarrasser de telles contingences en n’admettant pas du tout les femmes dans leurs effectifs.

Alors, bien sûr, certaines envisageront d’aller étudier à l’étranger – mais alors, il faudra vraiment que leurs parents en aient les moyens. Pour celles qui devront d’abord obtenir une bourse gouvernementale, le Ministère de l’Education exigera qu’un tuteur masculin signe un formulaire d’autorisation puis accompagne l’intéressée sur place, après quoi celle-ci devra se soumettre à un suivi régulier par l’attaché culturel de l’ambassade saoudienne de sa tutelle masculine, et au moindre écart, c’est la révocation de la bourse et le retour direct en Arabie Saoudite.

Les instances des Nations Unies en charge des droits des femmes en ont déjà maintes fois fait grief à Riyad qui, pour l’instant, a toujours fait la sourde oreille. Nous l’avons nous-mêmes rappelé au Roi Abdullah, dont nous verrons bien ce qu’il en fait. Mais déjà, pour éviter que, comme toujours depuis l’an dernier, nos lettres ne nous reviennent non ouvertes car refusées par la Cour royale et les ministères saoudiens, cette fois, nous avons tout envoyé par fax …

Il n'est toutefois pas rare de voir des femmes en voile intégral ...

Il en est de même pour la seconde question que nous avons abordée, celle-là étant vraiment une question d’actualité, au sens fort du terme.

Le 22 mai dernier, une Saoudienne du nom de Manal Al-Sharif a été arrêtée au volant d’une voiture à 4H du matin, puis remise en liberté sous caution avant que la police ne revienne l’arrêter à minuit le lendemain, cette fois à son domicile. De quoi Manal Al-Sharif s’était-elle rendue coupable au volant ? D’un excès de vitesse ? De conduite en état d’ivresse ? Quel délit routier grave avait-elle bien pu commettre pour se trouver à ce point dans le collimateur des autorités ? Tout simple. Manal était au volant, à savoir qu’elle conduisait une voiture, et ça, pour une femme en Arabie Saoudite, c’est un délit. Ou plus exactement, c’est contraire à la religion …

Mais comment, me direz-vous, peut-il exister des préceptes religieux musulmans concernant la conduite automobile puisque, lorsque l’Islam est apparu au 7ème siècle, l’automobile était loin d’exister ? Ca n’a pas gêné un imam saoudien, qui a cru bon de préciser en 1990 – au demeurant année de l’arrivée massive de troupes occidentales en Arabie Saoudite suite à l’invasion du Koweït par l’Irak de Saddam Hussein, et avec lesdites troupes de femmes soldats – que selon lui, Dieu considérait qu’une femme qui conduit une voiture était une pécheresse, rien que ça.

Dans sa fatwa, édit religieux qui n’a en théorie aucune valeur juridique, mais c’est sans compter sur l’omniprésence intrusive de la doctrine wahhabite dans le droit saoudien, le Cheikh Abdel Aziz Bin Abdallah Bin Baz nous explique ainsi, à peine immodeste, ce que le dieu de l’Islam aurait dit à Mahomet si les voitures avaient existé lorsque le Coran fut révélé à ce dernier:

« […] La question de la conduite des automobiles par les femmes. Il est connu que ceci constitue une source d’indéniables vices, inter alia, la khilwa [rencontre en privé entre un homme et une femme] interdite par la loi et l’abandon du hijab. Cela concerne aussi les rencontres entre des femmes et des hommes sans que les précautions nécessaires soient prises. Cela pourrait aussi conduire à des actes haraam [impies] et c’est pourquoi ce fut interdit. La pure Chari’a interdit également les moyens qui conduisent à la commission d’actes de nature impie et considère de tels actes haraam en eux-mêmes …  Ainsi, la pure Chari’a a proscrit toutes les voies menant au vice …  La conduite automobile féminine est l’un des moyens qui mènent à cela et c’est en soi une évidence. »

Le système judiciaire saoudien ignore totalement les Droits de l'Homme. Ici, une sentence de flagellation est exécutée en public.

Le problème, c’est que, d’une part, notre imam ne nous explique en rien le lien entre ces délires et la Chari’a qu’il invoque, ni a fortiori avec le Coran, et que, d’autre part, aucun pays musulman au monde n’a repris cette interprétation arriérée et fantasmatique des textes saints, l’Arabie Saoudite étant le seul pays au monde, toutes traditions juridiques confondues, où les femmes n’aient pas le droit de conduire une voiture.

Là encore, l’ONU a donné de la voix. Le Comité sur l’Elimination de la Discrimination contre les Femmes et le Groupe de Travail du Conseil des Droits de l’Homme pour la Revue périodique universelle ont appelé à l’unisson le royaume wahhabite à mettre fin à cette pratique, jusqu’ici à nul effet pourtant. Quant à Manal Al-Sharif, elle fut finalement libérée le 30 mai …  Mais ne peut toujours pas conduire un véhicule, ni elle ni quelque Saoudienne que ce soit.

Reste à voir maintenant si le Ministre saoudien de la Justice écoutera plus volontiers l’AWC que les instances des Nations Unies, sachant que nos fax lui sont bien parvenus et espérant qu’il n’a pas donné ordre à son personnel de jeter tout de suite tout envoi portant notre emblème, à défaut de pouvoir le refuser comme une lettre.

Après sa libération, Manal Al-Sharif retrouve son fils. Son acte de bravoure a suscité l'admiration de par le monde et chez de nombreuses Saoudiennes qui s'identifient à sa cause.

Dans leur bestseller de 2010, La moitié du ciel (en anglais, Half the Sky), Nicholas Kristof et Sheryl Wudunn, grands reporters au New York Times, lauréats du Prix Pulitzer, nous parlent des fléaux qui s’abattent sur les femmes de par le monde, tels que l’esclavage sexuel, les « crimes d’honneur », les mutilations génitales et les viols. « La moitié du ciel », c’est ce que représentent selon eux les femmes, qui constituent certes, ici sur la Terre, la moitié la plus importante de l’humanité, ne serait-ce qu’en termes purement numéraires.

Or, en regardant cette Arabie Saoudite où l’homme, non tant ici l’être humain que l’individu mâle, interprète la parole de Dieu comme étant de nature uniquement punitive, le fait de naître femme étant en lui-même une offense, l’on ne peut s’empêcher de se demander si l’on n’est pas sur une terre où, pour sainte que la veuille le « Gardien des Deux Saintes Mosquées » qu’est le Roi d’Arabie Saoudite, à tout instant et en tout lieu, Dieu punit la moitié du ciel …

Que c’est avoir mal, ou trop peu, lu le Coran que de faire ainsi. Lorsque l’Arabie Saoudite soutenait l’insensé régime taliban d’Afghanistan, même les Emirats Arabes Unis et le Pakistan qui faisaient de même n’en exigeaient pas tant de leurs ressortissantes. C’est dire.

Que l’Arabie Saoudite se considère tout entière comme une mosquée, cela ne concerne pas l’AWC, trop attachée pour y trouver à redire au droit des peuples à disposer d’eux-mêmes. Que l’Etat saoudien en prenne prétexte pour violer les droits fondamentaux de son peuple, là, en revanche, nous ne pouvons l’admettre. Et a fortiori, qu’il invoque la parole divine pour opprimer les femmes¸ autant le peuple saoudien ne sera jamais notre ennemi, autant, de ce seul fait, son gouvernement peut être assuré quant à lui que, tant qu’il continuera de le faire ou de le laisser faire, il ne sera jamais notre ami. Et sachant quelle bonne écoute nous est accordée au sein de l’ONU, c’est bien dommage pour lui.


Bernard Henry est Officier de Presse du Bureau de Représentation auprès de l’Office des Nations Unies à Genève de l’Association of World Citizens.

June 8 – Day of the Law of the Sea: Introducing Ralph Townley

In The Search for Peace, World Law on June 7, 2011 at 7:16 PM


By René Wadlow


The United Nations (UN) General Assembly has designated June 8 each year to be the The Day of Oceans and the Law of the Sea. For a decade, from 1973 to 1982, the United Nations negotiated a far-reaching Convention on the Law of the Sea which declared that the oceans beyond the limits of national jurisdiction to be the common heritage of mankind.

Much of the spirit for the law of the sea and the regulation of trade by ships is due to the pioneer international law writing of Hugo Grotius. Ralph Townley, a former high UN secretariat member had outlined the contribution of Grotius in an article in Transnational Perspectives ( republished here:


Ruit Hora!: Hugo Grotius and the Rule of Law

By Ralph Townley

Hugo Grotius was born in Delft on Easter Sunday 1583 into a family with a long tradition of public service and one characterized by deep religious devotion. Similar in this respect to the background of Dag Hammarskjold, their lives were an expression and an elaboration of this dual heritage. An infant prodigy, Grotius received his first primer at the age of one from the renowned Lipsius. At three, he could read it and recite the psalms. At six Grotius was a passable astronomer, and at eight wrote a Latin elegy on the death of his infant brother. When eleven, Grotius entered Leyden University and graduated covered in honours three years later. Rather like the young Mozart, Grotius was hawked around Holland at public expense to display his erudition. Not unexpectedly he grew up a little arrogant, touchy, priggish, sanctimonius, and sensitive to criticism.

Grotius’ entry into the world of diplomacy, jurisprudence and statecraft began at fifteen when he was appointed as a diplomatic envoy in a mission to Henri IV. On the way, he had his first experience of a naval battle between Dutch and Spanish men-o’-war. On the way back, he stopped off to take a doctorate in laws at the University of Orleans. Called to the bar at sixteen he soon held high office as Advocate-Fiscal and State Historian. At that time he translated from Dutch into Latin the latest navigational and astronomical commentaries by Mercator and others. He also wrote and published in 1601 his first play Adamus Exul to serve, as he put it, “as a little exercise in Latin.”

As a jurist, Grotius first found international recognition when the Dutch East Indies Company captured a Portuguese treasure ship: Portugal at that time being ruled by Spain. The Company retained him to prepare a brief which was, in essence, a defence of piracy. De jure Pradae provided him with the elements of his first major work of international law Mare liberum published anonymously in 1608. That year he married Marie Van Reigersberch with whom he exchanged love letters in Greek and who was to bear him seven children.

A portrait of Hugo de Groot, aka Grotius, by Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt.

His career was interrupted abruptly when, in 1619, he was condemned to life imprisonment. Two years later, his resourceful wife arranged his escape from the fortress of Loevestein in the library chest in which she normally sent his books and in which he had dutifully returned those he had read. Disguised as a plumber, Grotius escaped with Marie to Paris where, as all good internationalists do when unemployed, he tutored students.

It was in Paris in 1625 that he published his magisterial work De jure Belli ac Pacis. It was a masterpiece commanding instant recognition, and receiving an enduring reputation. Two years later, he finished “Concerning the Truth of the Christian Religion”. It rivals The Imitation of Christ in its popularity. Both have been translated into almost every language and have remained in print ever since.

Grotius’ attempts to return to his own country were well-nigh disastrous and, in due course, he entered the service of the Swedish court serving as ambassador to France. He justified his decision by stating that, like Joseph in Egypt, his people having no further use for him, he was at liberty to enter the service of others. His public probity, however, was never questioned. Throughout his exile, he steadfastly refused all commissions that might have injured the commerce or the political interests of Holland.

While on his grand tour, the young poet John Milton was sent to Grotius by Lord Scudamore, the British ambassador, who, as Milton wrote, “gave me a card of introduction to the learned Hugo Grotius at that time ambassador from the queen of Sweden to the French Court.” It is from Adamus Exul that Milton lifted much of the language for Paradise Lost. (As my friend and colleague Dr Calvin Plimpton once stated “You British never plagiarize, you plunder!”)

As ambassador, the position of Grotius was not enviable. Serving under the redoubtable Chancellor Oxenstierna, he had to attempt to extricate Sweden from an offensive alliance it had had no business concluding with France. With that country at the height of its powers and Sweden by then in decline, Sweden was no match for France. Nor was Grotius a match for Richelieu: Grotius was incapable of dissembling or deceit – very much the tools of the trade of diplomacy in those days – or of demonstrating those vulpine qualities of Richelieu that reveal themselves so startlingly in de Campaigne’s triple portrait of him.

"De jure belli ac pacis", title page from the second edition of 1631.

In 1645, while returning from a visit to Queen Christina, Grotius was shipwrecked in the Baltic and died shortly afterwards in Rostock. He lies buried in his native Delft alongside those princes of the House of Orange who, in life, hounded him so relentlessly.

Grotius’ contribution to his world was two-fold: in an age of unbridled religious passion and persecution: tolerance; and at a time of the brutality and horror of the Thirty Years War: the precepts by which nations should govern their conduct with one another and with their subjects.

The sacerdotal, obscurantist, Catholic south of Europe was then locked in a bitter struggle with the Protestant north. With the Huguenots defeated in France, the standard bearers of Calvinism became the House of Orange. Their belief in a dour and awesome God, and a mankind whose fate was predestined became an obsession in the face of Catholic persecution. They sought to establish a highly authoritarian, rigid theocracy in Holland and particularly in that country’s South American colonies under Prince Maurice the absolutism of Bacon and the leviathan of Hobbes came close to reality. While the House of Orange found strong support in the lower classes, the patrician scholars and businessmen rejected Calvinism in favour of a more generous and liberal Lutheranism. Holland had by its own industry and the accidents of history replaced Venice. Holland became the centre of world trade, banking, shipping, agriculture, industry, and scientific inquiry. With a congruence, that can often be remarked in history, politics, religion and the needs of commerce all called for a liberal and spacious government making treaties with any state, a commerce that traded with anyone and a freedom of scientific inquiry unfettered by religious constraints.

That wise and resourceful statesman Oldenbarneveldt, one of the founding fathers of his country, led this movement of enlightenment. The Calvinist synod sought support from Armenius, the noted theologian from Leyden. Instead of helping to scotch the viper in their midst, his research led him to the conclusions that there were no biblical grounds for the belief in predestination, and that man had free will which enabled him to accept – or reject – God’s grace.

Prince Maurice moved swiftly. In 1619 Oldenbarneveldt was executed, Armenius disgraced and Grotius condemned to life imprisonment. Amidst all this, Grotius remained an apostle of tolerance, believing with Erasmus and Nicholas of Cusa that “to know nothing completely is the surest faith.” Grotius continued to translate and write commentaries on the Old and New Testaments as well as to translate Euripides and write his own plays. He advocated reconciliation between Catholic and Protestant to give freedom to the many sects and schools of thought to which Holland was rapidly becoming host. But the separation of man from nature and both from God was already in evidence in Dutch life, art and belief. Some historians have seen the rapidly expanding glass industry as being particularly significant in this process. The wide use of glass and the invention of the lens not only extended the working day and the workman’s working life, but through the invention of the telescope and microscope ushered in the secular era.

This process was most visible in the collapse of Christendom and the rise of the nation-state. Historians date the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 as the beginning of a world of sovereign independence. But in Grotius’ time this was already a reality, and Grotius did not seek to change it. The nation-state was here to stay. What he sought to do was to rescue from the old order the works of early writers on international law so as to restore the jus naturalis as the overriding obligation not only of mankind but of states as well.

A historical Map of the Treaty of Westphalia.

The natural law to the earlier writers was divine law. It was that which was right and just and the righteous man would be a just man. Grotius saw natural law regardless whether it was divine or secular in origin, as binding on the conduct of nations as well as on man. In his major works, Grotius drew on the Spanish school of de Vitoria, Soto, Vasquez, and Suarez as well as the Italian Gentile, and through them reached back to Aquinas and Augustine. Grotius’ writings lacked the sharp edge of the Spanish School and being a practicing lawyer preferred to quote precedent 2,000 years old rather than contemporary cases.

But he codified the law as it applies to the rights, duties and obligations of states on land, at sea, in war and at peace. He sought to create a moral cosmos in which states not only observed the law in international relations with one another but also towards their own citizenry. This social order paralleled in his mind the physical order of the heavens then being revealed by Galileo and his precursors. Much of this thinking can be found in Adamus Exul in which, at seventeen, Grotius was already exploring the moral as well as the physical order of the universe.

His importance today? It is not difficult to trace the Grotian legacy in what is called the constitutive process. Beginning with Jay’s Treaty (when Jay graduated from King’s College, he travelled to Delft on a fellowship to study the Grotius papers), arrangements for arbitration and other methods of peaceful settlement began to feature in international instruments. The Alabama Claims Arbitration was a triumph for Grotian principles. The Hague Conventions and the League of Nations were similar expressions. Less visible but of much greater importance have been the everyday observance of international rules of conduct. This observance gives the lie, I think, to those positivists who regard law as only that which can be enforced.

The Grotian legacy can be found in the pursuit of human rights although it is unlikely, given his rather shaky stand on slavery, that Grotius would have seen the role of the state as an enhancer of human rights. As a realist he only hoped that the observance of natural law would restrain the state from becoming an instrument of oppression.

Many international lawyers see the Grotian legacy slipping away. The seas that for 300 years have been used by everyone as being inclusive, will, under the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention, fall for the most part under exclusive jurisdiction. Law may still have a role but it does not rule. There were more cases before the old Hague Court in the first year of the League of Nations than during the first twenty of the United Nations. As Antony Eden once remarked, “There is too much accommodation between the fire brigade and the fire.” In fact, as Kurt Waldheim has demonstrated, you can get away with almost anything as long as your timing is right.

With a statue of Grotius in front of its Gothic-style Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), birthplace Delft proudly celebrates the native son.

So many say. But these trends are not a refutation of Grotius’ moral cosmos but the product of new voices raised in the international community who state that it was an immoral cosmos and one in the making of which they had had no voice: hence the search for new approaches to an equitable sharing of the world’s resources, one where the benefits of science and technology can be made universally available and one where even information would be transmitted with a greater sense of international responsibility. These new voices call not for a rejection but a redefinition of the rules that should govern the conduct of the international community.

The Grotius family motto was Ruit Hora. This was not just a Calvinist reminder not to waste time; but, that man has but a brief spell before he exchanges time for eternity and that in that period he has certain obligations to fulfil. In our international activities particularly, we are more likely to run into the would-be-Richelieu than a would-be-Grotius. All the more reason then that we should take his family’s motto and restore ourselves by making it our own.



Ralph Townley, a retired director in the United Nations Secretariat, is the author of United Nations: A View from Within.

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