Striving to leave an indelible mark as president of the United Nations Security Council in August, Egypt proposed that an informal working group, focused comprehensively on sanctions regimes, should be set up to advise the Council. But one powerful member of the Council, Russia, has said no to the idea, so it has been put on hold.
The draft resolution from Egypt didn’t get far, as it was proposed last week and dashed soon after. Given that sanctions are such a “sensitive topic,” said Sandra Lyngdorf, the sanctions adviser for the Swedish mission to the UN, the text had low chances for success.
The vote on the resolution was to be paired on Aug. 3 with a briefing on sanctions, but the vote portion is canceled. The proposal hit a major roadblock in suggesting the notion of an informal working group as well as the idea that the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, report to the group on how sanctions are affecting ordinary people.
“The working group was not well perceived by some,” said Elbio Rosselli, Uruguay’s ambassador to the UN and an elected Council member. Nor was the recommendation of a report from the secretary-general, so the proposal’s “two pillars are wobbly.”
Russia and the other permanent Council members — Britain, China, France and the United States — hold their sanctions tools dearly and will hang on to their prerogative as veto power to maintain and deploy them, no matter what.
At least the Egyptians, Rosselli said, “were bold in trying — that’s good,” adding, “they should be happy they stepped on somebody’s toes.”
The draft text was also controversial because Egypt wanted to clarify UN experts’ work monitoring sanctions regimes, saying that experts “should strictly conform to their mandates”; their reports should rely on “sufficient and credible evidence”; and they should “fully engage the concerned Member States to which the inquiries are addressed.”
The pointed language relates to accusations made by the UN panel of experts on South Sudan, included in an April 2017 report. The experts asserted that arms sales were made from Egypt to South Sudan, a blood bath that has been on the Council’s agenda for years.
Much of the criticism lobbed against the South Sudan panel by Egypt and by a few longtime UN sanctions experts centers on the experts’ weapons reporting. The panel linked an Egyptian company to a $7.2 million contract to deliver armored vehicles to the South Sudanese military. The report also cited media speculation about possible covert arms shipments from Egypt, suggesting that South Sudan’s government might have acquired two L-39 fighter jets from Ukraine.
Given that sanctions remain one of the most valuable tools in the Council’s arsenal against warmongers and others inciting conflict, they invariably invite controversy. A proposal to intensify the scrutiny of sanctions would inevitably raise the hackles of the permanent members, or P5. But some countries outside that potent mix said that there was room for improvement on sanctions regimes.
Russia and China, among the P5, generally oppose sanctions, except when it comes to bans on terrorists, like rebels in Chechnya or ISIS. Britain, France and the US — the P3 — also agree on sanctioning terrorists but threaten sanctions more widely. They have tried for at least a year to sanction perpetrators of the violence in South Sudan, for example, but have been vetoed by Russia.
Since 1966, the Council has established 26 sanctions regimes, more than half of them in Africa. Currently, the Council maintains 13 regimes and nine panels of independent experts who track the targeted parties. Standard sanctions can impose travel and asset bans and weapons embargoes.
Egypt’s position on the Council has been curious from the start of its two-year term, which ends Dec. 31. Although it is a major recipient of aid from the US, it has shown an independent streak on Council agenda items. Egypt’s ambassador to the UN, Amr Abdellatif Aboulatta, has been an approachable diplomat, willing to discuss Council work to reporters when asked, even though his president is jailing journalists inside the country.
Egypt’s plan to highlight sanctions regimes is another curiosity, given that the P5 would automatically reject any mention of an informal working group. Sweden, an elected member of the Council, said it would welcome a report from the secretary-general on sanctions regimes, looking at trends and “cost-cutting” issues, Lyngdorf said. The working group proposal would be important, she added, if it were a “balanced and broad mandate.”
Only Ethiopia and Senegal were willing to back their fellow Africans — Egypt — on the draft proposal, a diplomat familiar with the text said.
Even an Egyptian diplomat admitted that the P5’s lack of enthusiasm for an informal working group would be a hurdle, since the big powers fear losing even a fraction of control over the sanctions apparatus.
“The P5 oppose always anything that takes away their toy – sanctions,” said a UN sanctions expert. “Ideally, they don’t want other countries to be assertive, knowledgeable or organized to influence sanctions policies. For that reason they oppose initiatives they can’t control.”
Egypt took up the subject of sanctions at an open debate on July 5 (see video below), but no P5 ambassador came to the meeting.
Smartly, Egypt invited several countries that have been or still are subjected to sanctions to speak about their experiences: Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Each country spoke frankly, positively and not so.
Citing the improvement of sanctions to hurt perpetrators while avoiding adverse effects on civilians, Aboulatta began the meeting by saying “these modern sanctions should not be used for retaliatory purposes” but as a “tool to end conflict” and spur dialogue.
Congo is currently contending with UN sanctions, and the Congolese ambassador, Ignace Gata Mavita wa Lufuta, made wide-ranging remarks that touched on the need to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to sanctions. He also praised the work of UN panels of experts and their reports, describing them as “crucial in determining the success of the sanctions regime.”
But respect for their recommendations, he said, “leaves a lot to be desired” — as they tend to be “silent” on certain actors or entities. To impose asset bans on rebel groups can also be absurd, Lufuta said, since they rarely own bank accounts to freeze.
Like Lufuta, the Liberian ambassador, Lewis Brown, emphasized the regional aspects of sanctions, saying that no sanctions regime can be productive without regional enforcement. Interceding to stabilize one country by another “may actually upset regional balance,” Brown said. But Liberia, which emerged from two protracted civil wars that ended in 2003, acknowledged why sanctions were slapped on the country in the first place.
“Perhaps the best lesson — and I dare say the most important lesson to be learned — is one for member states: Do all you can to avoid the imposition of sanctions on your country; helpful as they often are, the scars wear indelibly and endure for long,” Brown said.
Such scars could also remain stubborn for a country accused of providing weapons to parties to a civil war, especially if it is a member of the Security Council. The war in South Sudan has been Topic A for the Council since December 2013, when the country, independent since 2011, fell into a civil war. Thousands of South Sudanese have been killed; nearly four million have been displaced; and six million are facing famine.
The Egyptian resolution, “Enhancing United Nations Sanctions effectiveness,” started diplomatically but broke no new ground. It resembled a “slimmed down” version of a comprehensive review resolution that Australia proposed in 2015, the UN sanctions expert said.
In fact, the Egyptian draft reiterated “a good selection of recommendations” from the Australian review, but the Egyptians, the expert noted, did not incorporate recommendations released in June “that go deeper and are based on broad consensus.”
Egypt’s proposal had cited numerous benefits of an informal working group, from being a repository for lessons of previous sanctions regimes to outlining conditions for maintaining and lifting sanctions. The proposal also aimed to ensure that the selection of UN experts reflect fair geographic representation (experts tend to be trained to follow Western values).
The proposal may resurface in another form, but it looks like it is “short of breath and needs more time,” Rosselli said.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.