In this season of giving, the United States delegation offered free bourbon from Kentucky to the media and is splurging on a holiday party paid for by Kelly Knight Craft, the US ambassador, while in more serious business at the United Nations, the Russians not only held up a vote for one day regarding a resolution on humanitarian-aid deliveries into Syria but could have ultimately killed chances of food and medicine getting to four million Syrians next year.
In a week at the UN of other actions taken and given during one of the most sacred holiday times of the year, 227 miles to the south, the US House of Representatives voted on Dec. 18 to impeach President Trump resoundingly: 230-197 for abuse of power and 229-198 on obstruction of Congress.
At the UN in New York, in the week before Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are celebrated, impeachment of the US president echoed distantly, yet the final days of the year have bounced from upbeat — gifting and partying — to Scroogelike misery, as lights in the UN are still being dimmed promptly at 6 p.m., as December days ebb to black by late afternoon. Such efficiencies hark back to UN budget gaps, wrought by hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid dues by such major contributors as the US and Brazil.
Yet in a holiday period meant to kindle good will for all, Dickens would find the most recent bah-humbug behavior of the Russians in the Security Council worth mentioning in a new edition of “A Christmas Carol.”
The Scroogelike behavior circled around a Security Council vote on dueling draft resolutions, scheduled to take place on Dec. 19 but delayed to Dec. 20, both dealing with extending a mandate of humanitarian-aid crossings into Syria, based on a 2015 resolution. Russia, however, was not playing along from the start of negotiations, on the number of crossings or the length of the mandate renewal.
As one European delegate said, Russia was typically testing how far it could go. Another one said publicly that Russia’s counteroffer was a “take it or leave it” proposal.
Russia, a permanent member of the Council, proposed its own resolution that would have reduced the number of border crossings by half, to two on the Turkey border and closing those on the Iraq and Jordan border, and extended the mandate for six months rather than a year. A competing draft resolution, proposed by three elected Council members, Belgium, Germany and Kuwait, included a mandate of one year and three crossings to lure the Russians to a positive vote.
On the morning of Dec. 20, after a spate of cliffhangers over 24 hours, the Russian resolution was voted on, failing with five yes votes (Russia, China, Equatorial Guinea, South Africa and Ivory Coast); six no votes and four abstentions. The troika resolution also failed, with vetoes from Russia and China.
Council members spoke scathingly to one another after the votes, with Germany telling Russia that the troika resolution had been negotiated with four million “suffering” people in mind. France said Russia’s veto was “irresponsible and cynical.” Knight Craft, in an emotional voice, said: “I am sitting here in a state of shock: this decision is reckless, irresponsible and cruel.”
Russia spoke back vehemently, noting that whoever voted against his country’s draft resolution failed to accept changes in Syria since the mechanism was first adopted in 2015. The Jordan crossing was unused (which was not argued), and much of the aid being delivered “is not being used as directed,” he said. The original mechanism was temporary from the start, Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia added, “due to dire situation at the time.”
Originally, the troika proposal aimed for five crossings — including a new one on the border of Syria and Turkey — but that was out of the question for Russia. The draft resolution had been stripped to six paragraphs, emphasizing humanitarian-aid delivery, while avoiding political overtones, according to one diplomat.
After the lengthy negotiations, said Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve, the ambassador of Belgium (see video below), the draft resolution on “lifesaving mechanisms” accommodated the Russians’ requests to some extent by dropping the proposed five crossings to three. For the US, the red line was not reducing the number of crossings below that number.
Although the mandate for the mechanism expires on Jan. 10, giving the Council more time to agree on a solution, the Russians may now hold the upper hand in forcing the number of crossings to two.
The Russian draft resolution that was voted on the morning of Dec. 20 would have reauthorized the use of the Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa crossings on the Syria-Turkey border for six months, while excluding reauthorization for the al-Ramtha crossing on the Syrian-Jordan border and the al-Yarubiyah crossing on the Syria-Iraq border — the latter being crucial, some diplomats say, for delivery of medical goods.
The deputy director for the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs told the Council that the situation for people in many parts of Syria is “worse than when the year began.” In Idlib, the UN expert added that “rain, cold and winter conditions have compounded hardship for many displaced families and their host communities.”
To justify his country’s stance on closing the Jordan and Iraq crossings, Nebenzia retweeted: “#Nebenzia to the press: Al-Ramtha has not worked since 2018, Al Yarubiyah is on the border with #Iraq, which is controlled by the #Syria|n government. The #humanitarian access has improved dramatically <…> We have to recognize that things are changing.”
But in the Council showdown on the two resolutions, Nebenzia suddenly held up the vote on Dec. 19, as Knight Craft steered the Council to another scheduled topic, Iran’s nuclear activities.
As if visited by the Ghost of Christmas Future, Nebenzia stepped in and out of that meeting, calling Moscow, close to midnight there, for further instructions on the cross-border resolutions, aware that a Russian veto could reinforce its bah-humbug image. In the final vote, Nebenzia said that there were only one million needy people in Syria, to which the German ambassador called it a “cynical” remark.
The Russian goal of reducing the crossings may point to its efforts to help Syria regain its full sovereignty, one diplomat on the Council said, as it begins to reconcile through a UN-led peace process, starting with writing a new constitution.
The afternoon that the Russians paused the vote on Syria, Dec. 19, Knight Craft, fresh from hosting a Council trip to her home state of Kentucky the weekend before, made a good will gesture by offering a bourbon tasting for the UN press corps. (The Council members who had traveled to Kentucky also imbibed in a bourbon distillery tour, publicized by Knight Craft on her official Twitter page.)
A bourbon tasting was just fine for the media, most of whom would not turn down a free drink, but it begged the question as to motive: was it Knight Craft’s idea of a public-private partnership? Or was the tasting an appeasement, as the US mission to the UN is holding a black-tie party on Dec. 20, at the New York Public Library, to mark the end of the US presidency of the Council and to celebrate the season of giving?
Reflecting the exclusive nature of the party, crucial UN Secretariat people were not invited, one diplomat said, including those who work with the Council closely. In addition, only ambassadors and a select group of media got invitations, leaving the impression that the party — financed by Knight Craft herself, several people confirmed — was a clubby gathering. Joe Craft, Knight Craft’s husband, is most likely going as well, as he was spotted attending the Council meeting on Syria on Dec. 20, sitting in the delegates’ section. (PassBlue, an American-based nonprofit media site, was not invited to the party.)
But the Syria votes and bourbon were not the only things given and taken this holiday season. On Dec. 18, a Security Council meeting on Sudan invoked upbeat speeches by most of the 15 members, who noted the progress of the people’s revolt as the country proceeds toward democracy and Omar al-Bashir, the despotic and deposed leader, has been sentenced to two years in prison.
During the Sudan meeting in the Council chamber, an amber alert buzzed loudly on cellphones around 3:30, warning that a squall was moving through the New York metro area, and for people to “Slow Down!”
Despite the interruption, Fatou Bensouda, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, reiterated to the Council that Sudan must “honor its commitments to deliver justice” for the victims of the ravaging and raping of Darfuris in a conflict that goes back to 2003. Approximately 300,000 people were killed during the war and around 2.7 million people fled from their villages. Bashir was indicted for war crimes, including genocide, nine years ago by the International Criminal Court, but the arrest warrant has not been honored.
After the Council meeting ended, Bensouda talked informally to a group of Darfuris who live in the US and had come from as far as Virginia to cheer her on in her quest for justice for them. They knew, too, that Bensouda is still restricted in her traveling to the UN to speak in her role as ICC prosecutor.
The US State Department limited her visa last spring, at the request of John Bolton, the national security adviser, for Bensouda’s attempt to investigate possible war crimes in Afghanistan. Although Bolton is gone, visa restrictions on Bensouda have not been lifted, and she left the UN immediately on Dec. 18, flying back to Europe.
Yet another give and take occurred in a conference room next door to the Council that afternoon, where “decriminalizing homosexuality in solidarity with LGBTQ people” headed the agenda. The meeting, led by Knight Craft, included the US ambassador to Germany, Ric Grenell, who is formally tasked with the decriminalization objective. According to the US, panelists discussed decriminalization work “in at least 69 countries,” but the event was closed, so no media or other outside organization knows exactly what was said.
Although a US press release quoted President Trump as saying, “. . . my administration is working with other nations to stop criminalizing of homosexuality, and we stand in solidarity with LGBTQ people who live in countries that punish, jail, or execute individuals based upon sexual orientation,” the US support of such rights couldn’t be more ambiguous.
Human Rights Campaign has tracked Trump and Vice President Pence on their stances on LGBTQ issues, tweeting this year that since the two “took office 2+ years ago, LGBTQ people have been under constant attack by an administration hell-bent on ripping away our progress.”
More stinginess or a good will gesture may pop up before the new year: a Chinese and Russian-led proposal to relax some UN sanctions against North Korea. It could be put to a vote in December in the Security Council, but for now no one seems to know about its status.
The plan could drift into 2020, which means that Vietnam, president of the Security Council in January, will inherit the proposal.
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.