With the protests against Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, showing no sign of abating, many observers are petitioning the United Nations to step in and do something, anything. But UN observers are not holding their breath.
For the most part, the UN Security Council is considered a venue of last resort that deals exclusively with issues of international peace and security.
The last Council meeting on Egypt occurred in 1956. That was after Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal and Egypt was invaded by England, France and Israel.
In the current case, what is happening is still considered a domestic affair.
“The [UN Security] Council is an institution of last resort,” said Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, Brazil’s ambassador to the UN and current president of the Security Council, speaking to reporters on February 2.
“So far there has not been a request by members for a briefing on the situation in Egypt,” Viotti said. “This situation is being dealt with at the national level.”
Two permanent members of the Council – China and Russia – are particularly averse to anything suggesting interference with state sovereignty, and would likely oppose a discussion on Egypt. That reaction is consistent with their bristling at forays into their own affairs.
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“I think that the United Nations should be dealing with its many tasks, which do not include poking fingers in the eyes of leaders in other countries,” said Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, speaking to reporters at the UN on Friday.
“It is our general position of Russia that one has to refrain from interfering in domestic affairs of our countries, especially in a situation where we are dealing with a case of extreme complexity,” said Churkin.
Churkin also hinted that Russia was loathe to ruffle an ally’s feathers: “And of course it’s a country which is very friendly to Russia and very friendly to many of us.”
With the exception of gross violations of international law – an invading army or ongoing genocide, for example – the Council has rarely shown an interest in intervening in an ongoing domestic uprising.
For instance, the Council remained silent as popular protests against another US-backed autocrat, the Shah of Iran, gained steam in 1978. Iran did not get onto the Council’s agenda until November 1979 – ten months after the Shah fled – when Islamic revolutionaries took 52 Americans hostage in the US embassy in Tehran.
Need for reform
For some, the inaction around Egypt’s crisis points to a need for Security Council reform.
“The Security Council was a body established in very different circumstances, where the main threat to peace and security was a conflict between states,” said Carne Ross, a former member of the British Foreign Service and director of Independent Diplomat, a diplomatic advisory group.
“These days the main threat to human welfare and human life is conflict within states.”
But the remaining members of the UN in the General Assembly also appear hesitant to take action. The silence could be to avoid charges of hypocrisy.
The nonprofit organisation Freedom House says 105 of the world’s 194 countries have limited civil and political rights, and the reluctance to criticise Egypt’s crackdown on demonstrators could be for fear of having the spotlight turned back on them.
The lack of chatter at the UN goes all the way to the top of the Secretariat Building, where Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, also showed restraint.
Often considered a source of moral authority, the secretary-general has so far issued tame statements condemning the crackdown against protestors.
“I believe it is important for the Egyptian leadership to listen more attentively and carefully to what the genuine and real wishes [of protestors] are,” Ban told a gathering of journalists in Germany on Friday.
“Reflecting on their wishes will be very important.”
Since the end of the Cold War, the secretary-general has tended to speak more forcefully against human rights abuses, but, according to UN experts, has often avoided meddling in domestic affairs – waiting for other countries to take the lead in an attempt to avoid conflict with any member states.
“You are either meddling, or you’re not in the avant-garde,” said Thomas Weiss, the director of the Ralph Bunch Institute for International Studies in New York.
“The secretary-general is a civil servant – he answers to government,” Weiss said. “If there is a government, the secretary-general would be very, very reluctant to criticise it, unless the government oversteps some international boundary, like genocide or mass atrocities.”
“That just isn’t the case in Egypt,” Weiss said.
In one important exception, Ban has taken a strong stance on Cote d’Ivoire, demanding from the start that Laurent Gbagbo step down as president after losing the November presidential elections.
But the UN has had a peacekeeping force on the ground there for years, and has a constitutionally mandated role to play in Cote d’Ivoire’s elections.
So for now, expect this international institution to remain quiet on Egypt.