U.S. Twists Arms to Help Defeat Resolution on Palestine

Riyad H. Mansour, Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the U.N., addresses the Security Council after the vote. Credit: UN Photo/Loey Felipe

Riyad H. Mansour, Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the U.N., addresses the Security Council after the vote. Credit: UN Photo/Loey Felipe

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Dec 31 2014 (IPS)

The United States re-asserted its political and economic clout – and its ability to twist arms and perhaps metaphorically break kneecaps – when it successfully lobbied to help defeat a crucial Security Council resolution on the future of Palestine this week.

Nadia Hijab, executive director of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, told IPS, “Did [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry manage to pull the rug out from under Palestine by convincing supportive Nigeria to abstain during the 13 calls he made to world leaders to torpedo the resolution?”Despite U.S. threats and blandishments, the PLO/Palestine does have room for maneuver in the legal and diplomatic arena – it just has not yet been effective at using it.” — Nadia Hijab

“Or did the U.S. pressure Palestine to go to a vote now, [in order] to ensure failure, since the Jan. 1 change in Security Council composition favours the Palestinians?”

If so, what promises of future support did it make? asked Hijab.

The resolution failed because it did not receive the required nine votes for adoption by the Security Council. Even if it had, it likely would have still failed, because the United States had threatened to cast its veto.

But this time around, Washington did not have to wield its veto power – and avoid political embarrassment.

The eight countries voting for the resolution, which called for the full and phased withdrawal of Israeli forces from occupied territories by the end of 2017, were France, China, Russia, Luxembourg, Argentina, Chad, Chile and Jordan.

The two negative votes came from the United States and Australia, while the five countries that abstained were the UK, South Korea, Rwanda, Nigeria and Lithuania.

A single positive vote, perhaps from Nigeria, would have made a difference in the adoption of the resolution.

Days before the vote, Kerry was working the phones, calling on dozens of officials, who were members of the Security Council, pressing them for a vote against the resolution or an abstention.

According to State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke, one such call was to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, which ensured an abstention from Nigeria, a country which was earlier expected to vote for the resolution.

After the vote, there were three lingering questions unanswered: Did the United States put pressure on Palestine to force the vote on the draft resolution on Tuesday since the re-composition of the Security Council would have been more favourable to the Palestinians, come Jan. 1?

And why didn’t Palestine wait for another week to garner those votes and ensure success?

Or did they misjudge the vote count?

Beginning Jan. 1, the composition of the Security Council would have changed with three new non-permanent members favourable to Palestine: Malaysia, Venezuela and Spain.

Samir Sanbar, a former U.N. assistant secretary-general who keeps track of Middle East politics, told IPS it is beyond a misjudgment of the vote count or miscalculation of the timing when in only a few days there would have been more likely positive votes by Malaysia, Spain and Venezuela.

“The actual intent of the Palestinian Administrative Authority from that failed move – and with whom it coordinated discreetly – remains to be politically observed,” he said.

“It is a tactical and strategic retreat at the expense of the universally supported inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, as stipulated in a succession of clearly assertive resolutions (including on statehood; right of return/or compensation; Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories; inalienable people’s rights).”

These rights, he said, have been endorsed by an overwhelming majority when the Palestinian cause was predominant in U.N. deliberations, and when Palestinian leadership was united in its quest and all Arab states, let alone most of the international community, were solidly behind it.

Sanbar said political logic would suggest maintaining what was gained during a positive period because any new resolution in the current weak status within a tragically fragmented Arab world will obviously entail a substantive retreat.

“It may be more helpful if efforts were mobilised to sharpen the focus on implementation of already existing resolutions and gain wider alliances to accomplish practical steps based on an enlightened knowledge of working through the United Nations rather than merely resorting to it on occasions when other options fail,” Sanbar declared.

Still, Hijab told IPS, whatever the case, many Palestinians breathed a sigh of relief that the resolution did not pass because it would have given a U.N. imprimatur to a lower bar on Palestinian rights.

The resolution implicitly accepted settlements with talk of land swaps and watered down refugee rights with reference to an agreed solution, effectively handing Israel a veto over Palestinian rights.

She said the Palestine Liberation Organization/Palestine will now be forced to take some meaningful action to maintain what little credibility it has with the Palestinian people.

“Despite U.S. threats and blandishments, the PLO/Palestine does have room for maneuver in the legal and diplomatic arena – it just has not yet been effective at using it,” she said. “It must urgently do so in 2015 – the 2335th Palestinian was killed by Israel this week as it colonises the West Bank and besieges Gaza – while Palestinian refugees suffer in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.”

Hijab said the Palestinian people need respite from this cruel reality, and they need their rights.

After the vote, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power, told the Council: “We voted against this resolution not because we are comfortable with the status quo. We voted against it because … peace must come from hard compromises that occur at the negotiating table.”

But she warned Israel, a close U.S. ally, that continued “settlement activity” will undermine the chances of peace.

Riyad Mansour, U.N. ambassador to Palestine, told the Council, “Our effort was a serious effort, genuine effort, to open the door for peace. Unfortunately, the Security Council is not ready to listen to that message.”

On the heels of the failed resolution, Palestine took steps Wednesday to join the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague – specifically to bring charges of war crimes against Israel – even though the U.S. Congress, which is virulently pro-Israel, has warned that any such move would result in severe economic sanctions.

“There is aggression practiced against our land and our country, and the Security Council has let us down — where shall we go?” Abbas said Wednesday, as reported by the New York Times, as he signed onto the court’s charter, along with 17 other international treaties and conventions.

“We want to complain to this organisation,” he said, referring to the ICC. “As long as there is no peace, and the world doesn’t prioritise peace in this region, this region will live in constant conflict. The Palestinian cause is the key issue to be settled.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

Sri Lanka Still in Search of a Comprehensive Disaster Management Plan

A novice monk stares at the sea, after taking part in commemoration events to mark the 10th anniversary of the Asian tsunami in Sri Lanka’s southern town of Hikkaduwa. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A novice monk stares at the sea, after taking part in commemoration events to mark the 10th anniversary of the Asian tsunami in Sri Lanka’s southern town of Hikkaduwa. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
KALMUNAI, Sri Lanka, Dec 31 2014 (IPS)

About six months after a massive tsunami slammed the island nation of Sri Lanka on Dec. 26, 2004, large plumes of smoke could be frequently seen snaking skywards from the beach near the village of Sainathimaruthu, just east of Kalmunai town, about 300 km from the capital, Colombo.

A petrified population had devised a makeshift early-warning system that would alert their fellow villagers of any incoming tsunami – burning rubber tires on the sand by the sea.

Residents of small coastal villagers would regularly look up from the task of removing rubble or repairing their demolished houses to check if the dark, smoky trails were still visible in the sky.

“You have to face a monstrous wave washing over your roof, taking everything in its path, to realise that you can’t drop your guard, ever.” — Iqbal Aziz, a tsunami survivor in eastern Sri Lanka
“If the smoke vanished, that meant the waves were advancing and we had to move out,” explained Iqbal Aziz, a local from the Kalmunai area in the eastern Batticaloa District.

Their fears were not unfounded. The villages of Maradamunai, Karativu and Sainathimaruthu, located 370 km east of Colombo, bore the brunt of the disaster, recording 3,000 deaths out of a total death toll of 35,322.

Humble homes, built at such close quarters that each structure caressed another, were pulverized when the waves crashed ashore the day after Christmas. What scared the villagers most was the shock of it all, with virtually no warnings issued ahead of the catastrophe by any government body.

In retrospect, there was plenty of time to relocate vulnerable communities to higher ground – it took over two hours for the killer waves to reach Kalmunai from their origin in northwest Indonesia. But the absence of official mechanisms resulted in a massive death toll.

Trauma and paranoia led to the makeshift early-warning system, but 10 years later the villagers have stopped looking to the sky for signs of another disaster. Instead, they check their cell phones for updates of extreme weather events.

The new system, fine-tuned throughout the post-tsunami decade, is certainly an improvement on its predecessor. Just last month, on Nov. 15, a huge 7.3-magnitude offshore earthquake was reported about 150 km northeast of Indonesia’s Malaku Islands. Villagers like Aziz only had to consult their mobile phones to know that they were in no danger, and could rest easy.

The pulverised beach in Kalmunai, located in eastern Sri Lanka, was stripped of most of its standing structures by the ferocity of the waves. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

The pulverised beach in Kalmunai, located in eastern Sri Lanka, was stripped of most of its standing structures by the ferocity of the waves. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

“The tsunami was like a wake-up call,” Ivan de Silva, secretary of the ministry of irrigation and water management, told IPS.

Besides the tragic death toll, the reconstruction bill – a whopping three billion dollars – also served as a jolt to the government to lay far more solid disaster preparedness plans.

Dealing with the destruction of 100,000 homes and buildings, and coordinating the logistics of over half a million displaced citizens, provided further impetus for creating a blueprint for handling natural catastrophes.

In May 2005, Sri Lanka implemented its first Disaster Management Act, which paved the way for the establishment of the Disaster Management Council headed by the president.

Three months later, in August 2005, the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) came into being, tasked with overseeing all disaster preparedness programmes, early warnings and post-disaster work.

Now, less than a decade later, it has offices in all of the country’s 25 districts, and carries out regular emergency evacuation drills to prep the population for possible calamities.

In April 2012, the DMC evacuated over a million people along the coast following a tsunami warning, the largest exercise ever undertaken in Sri Lanka’s history.

But the national plan is far from bullet proof. As Sarath Lal Kumara, assistant director of the DMC, told IPS: “Maintaining preparedness levels is an on-going process and needs constant attention.”

In fact, glaring lapses in disaster management continue to cost lives on an island increasingly battered by extreme weather events.

The latest such incident occurred during the same week as the 10th anniversary commemoration of the tsunami, when heavy rains lashed the northern and eastern regions of the country.

By the time the rains eased, 35 were dead, three listed as missing, a million had been marooned and over 110,000 displaced. Most of the deaths were due to landsides in the district of Badulla, capital of the southern Uva Province.

Unfortunately, two months ago, another village in the same district suffered multiple fatalities due to landslides. On Oct. 29, in the hilly village of Meeriyabedda, located on the southern slopes of Sri Lanka’s central hills, a landslide prompted by heavy rains killed 12 and 25 have been listed as missing.

A man walks past the 10-foot wall near the boundary of the Southern Extension of the Colombo harbour, which was built as a protective measure against a future tsunami. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A man walks past the 10-foot wall near the boundary of the Southern Extension of the Colombo harbour, which was built as a protective measure against a future tsunami. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

There was no clear early warning disseminated to the villagers, despite the National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) issuing warnings several days before of possible landslides. Nor was any pre-planning undertaken using NBRO hazard maps that clearly indicated landslide risks in the villages.

The twin tragedies were not the first time – and probably won’t be the last – that lives were lost due to failure to effectively communicate early warnings.

In November 2011, 29 people died in the Southern Province when gale-force winds sneaked up the coast unannounced. In July 2013, over 70 were killed in the same region, largely because fisher communities in the area were not informed about the annual southwest monsoon moving at a much faster speed than anticipated.

“We need a much more robust early warning dissemination mechanism, and better public understanding about such warnings,” DMC’s Kumara said.

Fast Facts: Natural Disasters in Sri Lanka

According to the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), around 500,000 Sri Lankans are impacted directly by natural disasters each year. The average death toll is roughly 1,200.

The island of little over 20 million people also needs to factor in damages touching 50 million dollars annually due to natural disasters, the most frequent of which historically have been floods caused by heavy rains.

The latter point – cultivating awareness among the general public – is perhaps the single most important aspect of a comprehensive national plan, according to experts.

The recent landslide proved that simple trainings alone are not sufficient to prompt efficient responses to natural disasters.

Meeriyabedda, for instance, has been the site of numerous training and awareness programmes, including a major initiative carried out in conjunction with the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRCS) in 2009 that involved mock drills and the distribution of rain gauges and loudspeakers to locals in the area.

Yet there was no evidence to suggest that villagers used the training or equipment prior to the landslide.

R M S Bandara, head of the NBRO’s Landslide Risk Research and Management Division, told IPS that while extensive maps of the island’s hazard-prone areas are freely available, they are not being put to good use.

“Not only the [general] public but even public officials are not aware of disaster preparedness. It still remains an issue that is outside public discussions, [except] when disasters strike,” he asserted.

Currently, only those who have faced disasters head-on understand and appreciate the need to think and act at lightening-quick speeds. “You have to face a monstrous wave washing over your roof, taking everything in its path, to realise that you can’t drop your guard, ever,” Aziz said.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida