Venezuela at the UN, Washington At Bay

Greg Grandin examines the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power’s, futile attempts to block Venezuela’s recent appointment to the UN Security Council, and anticipates the effect that a Chile-Venezuela Council alliance may have on US foreign policymaking.


Last week, 181 member states of the United Nations voted yea in Venezuela’s favor, allowing Caracas to take one of the two non-permanent seats on the Security Council reserved for Latin America.

Tongues clucked and fingers wagged. In the run-up to the vote, editorial boards, columnists and members of congress urged Washington to whip together the sixty-five nations needed to block Venezuela’s two-year term. But in the end, Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, could only secure only eleven opposing votes. Venezuela was Latin America’s unanimous choice to replace outgoing Argentina, joining Chile, which has one more year left. Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted his concern: “Shameful that Latin America 1) proposes abusive #Venezuela for UN Security Council, and 2) no one else, so no choice.”

Power reacted to the vote by collectively scolding the Latin American caucus:

The UN Charter makes clear that candidates for membership on the Security Council should be contributors to the maintenance of international peace and security and support the other purposes of the UN, including promoting universal respect for human rights. Regional groups have a responsibility to put forward candidates that satisfy these criteria.

Nearly exactly one hundred years ago, Woodrow Wilson said he was “going to teach the South American republics to elect good men.” We’re still trying.

Power then went on to say, “Venezuela’s conduct at the UN has run counter to the spirit of the UN Charter and its violations of human rights at home are at odds with the Charter’s letter.”

The “conduct” here referred to is Caracas’s recent turn on the UN’s Human Rights Council, where it consistently opposed US-supported resolutions and supported resolutions the US opposed.

For instance, Venezuela joined with twenty-seven other members to pass a resolution calling on countries to ensure that armed drones in counter-terrorism and military campaigns operate “in according with international law, including international human rights and humanitarian law.” Sounds unobjectionable, right? Not to Washington. Its representative voted with the minority. The United States “said that it did not believe that the examination of specific weapon systems fell under the mandate of the Council.” Kenneth Roth didn’t think this worth a tweet. Venezuela also tended to vote against any resolution that might be deemed a stalking horse for US-led interventions, siding, for instance, with China, Cuba and Russia against condemning human rights violations in Syria.

Whatever one thinks about that alliance, Caracas is not alone in Latin America in holding firm to the ideal of absolute sovereignty. This is understandable, considering the long history of Washington claiming for itself the right to judge which governments are worthy of existence and which are beyond the pale and merit destruction. Latin America unanimously opposed the invasion of Panama; nearly all of South America was opposed to bombing Libya to remove Muammar Qaddafi; there was even more unanimity against Washington’s efforts to move on Syria last year. Argentina, which then held the UN Security Council Seat, “will never propose or support a foreign military intervention,” foreign minister Héctor Timerman said. “The Argentine people will not be complicit in new deaths.”

If any country has violated the UN charter, it is the United States. The US did not get UN support to wage war in Nicaragua; and when in 1986 the UN’s International Court of Justice (established in the charter that Samantha Power evokes, mandating that all UN member nations are subject to its rulings) rejected American claims of collective self-defense, found the United States guilty of breaches of international law, and ordered that it pay reparations to Managua, Washington ignored the ruling and announced it would henceforth no longer be subject to the court’s jurisdiction (the legal scholar Eric Posner identifies the US withdrawal from the jurisdiction of the ICJ as a “watershed” moment, clearing the way of all old muliltaralist restraints and laying the legal foundation for the kind of renewed unilaterial interventionism, starting in Panama and continuing to Iraq and beyond). Nor did it have UN support to invade Panama in 1989 or bomb Iraq in 2003.On the issue of sovereignty, the charter is clear: “The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members”; “All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means”; “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force”; “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.” Emphasis mine.

It’s funny, actually, that Power uses the phrases “spirit” and “letter.” Usually the US justifies violating the “letter” of UN law (that is, it doesn’t work through procedures to obtain a warrant for its actions) by saying it is acting in the true “spirit” of the UN, unilaterally enforcing values that the institution embodies but can’t execute. Spirits have long been calling the United States to follow a higher law.

One can debate whether the ideals of sovereignty and non-aggression as they were understood in the late 1940s, when the UN was founded, make sense in today’s world; but certainly people of good will can also admit that the alternative—the US acting alone—hasn’t exactly been a success. No? I guess not. Among liberals like Power and Roth it has become unreflective common sense that old-style notions of sovereignty are relics of the past. They chant “R2P” like a incantation, warding off mounting evidence that the destruction of the ideal of sovereignty has made the world considerably more volatile. Roth, who heads one of the most respected human rights organizations in the world, is still hot for action, having sent out a barrage of tweets urging Obama to intervene in Syria.

The United States should listen to Latin America more often. In her sermon to the region, Ambassador Power mentioned a number of serious crises the world faced. The Security Council, she said, “must meet its responsibilities by uniting to meet common threats. All members of the Council have an obligation to meet the expectations of those who have entrusted them with these critical responsibilities.” Responsiblities. Obligations. Trust.

Among the threats she listed was ISIS, the Islamic insurgency now threatening Iraq and Syria, which is direct blowback from Washington’s disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003 (she also mentioned Mali, which itself is a consequence of yet another war Latin America opposed: in Libya). The vast majority of Latin American countries (twenty-six in thirty-three), and all of the major ones, were opposed to the invasion of Iraq, wanting to give inspections more time. Back then, it was Chile and Mexico who held the region’s non-permanent seat on the UN. The Bush administration placed extraordinary pressure on those two countries, including the threat of economic retaliation, to a resolution authorizing force to remove Saddam Hussein.

It is unclear how Mexico would have voted had a ballot taken place, but Chile went on record as saying “we will reject it.” In a memoir titled Una Guerra Solitaria: La verdadera historia de por qué la ONU dijo NO a la guerra de Irak (“A Solitary War: The True Story Why the United Nations said NO to the War in Iraq”), a Chilean diplomat at the time, Heraldo Muñoz, describes in detail Washington’s efforts to bend his country to its will.

Led by the moderate president Ricardo Lagos and Juan Gabriel Valdés, ambassador to the UN, Chile did try to work with Bush and Blair and come up with a sane solution to the problem Iraq posed. And Muñoz describes their trusting efforts to reason with Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice (a former Muñoz classmate at the University of Denver) and John Bolton, urging them to live up to their responsibilities and obligations to act as rational members of an equal community of nations. That didn’t happen. Seeing that it couldn’t pass without the support of Chile (and a few other countries, including Angola, who again will be joining the Security Council and is also, like Venezuela, criticized as being irresponsible) Washington shelved the resolution and assembled its “coalition of the willing.”

In other words, if Washington had listened to Latin America in 2003, one of the “threats” Power today lectures Latin America on wouldn’t exist.

Muñoz writes in his book: “Everybody has the right to due process; everybody, including the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. To deny this right in Guantanamo, or wherever, is to deny the moral superiority of democracy.” He’s currently Chile’s foreign minister, and has affirmed his support of Venezuela taking its seat on the Security Council.

If Kenneth Roth, Samantha Power, and the editorial board of the Washington Post want to know why, all they have to do is take a look at Iraq.

Looking ahead to the Security Council’s next term, this is what Ambassador Power will confront if she tries to put forward a war resolution: a “moderate,” “responsible” Chile, led by many of the same career diplomats who derailed Bush’s 2003 bid to obtain a warrant for regime change in Iraq, allied with a “radical,” “irresponsible” Venezuela. Caracas will bluster and showboat, and in so doing, make anything Chile proposes a reasonable, if not the only, alternative.

For Power, that just might be a problem from hell.