Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat— Before heading to New York to participate in the UN General Assembly meeting earlier this week, Secretary-General of the Arab League Nabil Elaraby spoke one-on-one with Asharq Al-Awsat about the many challenges facing the Arab world.
In light of the recent agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons and the resumption of talks between Israel and Palestine, Elaraby spoke of his commitment to peace in both Syria and Palestine, as well as how he feels the UN could be reformed to facilitate progress on these issues.
From his vantage point as head of the Arab world’s most important regional organization, he discussed the behind-the-scenes diplomacy that has taken place over the past months, including over the Syrian and Palestinian issues and with regard to relations with the West.
Following a string of high-profile business deals between China and the Arab world, he also told Asharq Al-Awsat about ongoing efforts to increase trade between China, Russia and Arab countries.
The following interview has been edited for length:
Q: Through your contacts with the parties concerned, are the Russian-American agreement and the regime’s commitment to disclosing its chemical weapon stores, and thus the commitment to a total ceasefire as a prelude to a peaceful solution, holding up to the continuous developments and surges happening on the ground in Syria?
Nabil Elaraby: First, what occurred recently between America and Russia on Syria is a signed agreement and not just an understanding, as happened on May 7, which each side interpreted its own way. Things have been different from the day of signing the agreement, which must be closely monitored for several reasons, including the Arab League’s experience dealing with the Syrian regime. I admit that it has a great ability to waste time and procrastinate. This happened with the visit of the League’s inspectors. Today, the Syrian regime believes that it has achieved a victory and its position is strong. But with the momentum that this matter is now witnessing, I think that all nations want to reach a solution to this issue, and that both the United States and the Russian Federation have a desire to end the crisis. In particular, when the American president announced that he was planning military action, this was a big shock to Russia in terms of what the American president would do.
Q: Do you believe that the real winner following this agreement is the Arab states, which did not call for a military strike but rather for deterrent positions to end the crisis and protect the Syrian people and their unity?
The Arab states welcomed the agreement and its implementation, and not to reducing the Syrian crisis to a matter of chemical weapons, which led to the killing of 1,400 citizens. Of course the killing of any individual—man, woman, or child—is something that the human conscience does not accept, especially the use of chemical weapons [which have been] banned worldwide since the First World War. […]
What the Arab states have been demanding for some time is the security portfolio that we sent to the Security Council on January 22, 2012, to do what is necessary, stop the fighting, dispatch observers, and engage in the political process, whose framework was decided upon in the closing statement of the Geneva conference on June 30, 2012, and leads to the beginning of a transitional phase, i.e. the transition from the status quo to the formation of a government with full powers to strike an agreement between the regime and the opposition.
Now, according to my information, in the meeting that occurred between the Russian and American foreign ministers, which was followed by the agreement, another meeting was agreed to in which the countries would be joined by Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN and Arab League Special Representative [for Syria], on September 28 of this year in New York. Three points are to be examined: representation of the states participating in the Geneva II conference; the representation or lack thereof of Iran, which is a party to the battles going on there and which aids the Syrian regime—
Here I remember what UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked us when we were considering holding the Geneva II conference. We said, among other things, that all countries that play a role must participate. We have a way to avoid some countries’ objection to Iran’s participation, such as working on the basis that participation comes in the context of this being a UN conference. Thus all countries are represented, not just the Arab countries. Regional countries can take part—Greece and Cyprus, as well as Iran. I mean for it to be a public conference. Every country says its piece, the conference ends, and work begins with representing the government and the opposition.
The third point is the timing of the meeting, and I will discuss that with the [UN] secretary-general.
Q: The Security Council is supposed to issue a resolution next week. Do you feel it is important that the resolution include a call for a ceasefire?
Naturally, a resolution will be issued by the Security Council. If we go back to the past two years, we see the demand for this resolution. Two resolutions were already issued when I went to the UN, No. 2042 and No. 2043 [broadly, allowing UN observer missions to Syria], on humanitarian issues and support for Kofi Annan’s mission, but no resolution was issued to resolve the problem. I think this time a resolution will come out with all that is required. But will it include a provision that any breach of the agreement will lead to the use of military forces, i.e. under Chapter VII [of the UN Charter]? I do not think that there will be text for the use of military force, but it will instead use phrases saying that, for example, a lack of commitment and implementation will lead to dire results.
Q: Is not using military force a victory for Assad? Or is it a victory for the Arab states and the Arab League, with their keenness to not give legal cover to a military strike on Syria?
It is a victory for the international community and the Syrian people.
Q: But the Arab League has pushed for a political solution in all its resolutions.
Of course, all that came out of the league was a political solution and deterrent measures in accordance with the UN Charter and the principles of international law.
Q: There are those who have attacked the league and accused it of agitating against Syria. Have any attacks been targeted at you personally?
For three months, there have been attacks on the league for not doing anything for the Syrian people. We met once with a number of the ladies on hunger strike. Lakhdar Brahimi was with me. It was the same question: What is the Arab League doing for the Syrian people? When the chemical attack occurred and Washington talked of a military strike, the situation reversed and the attacks began again. How could the Arab League allow the United States to strike an Arab country, as if we were giving permission to Washington?
In neither of the two cases was it taken into consideration that there are rules in the international system, and that the use of force in certain matters is subject only to the Security Council according to the rules of the Charter. All the countries of the world are subject to this, and we in the Arab League are a part of this international system. Chapter VIII, which applies to regional organizations like the Arab League, the African Union, and so on, clearly stipulates that these organizations should try to resolve whatever problems there may be. But, at a certain stage—when there is a need for the use of force—only the Security Council has this right. The media, however, talks differently, as if we do not want to find a solution.
Q: The Syrian opposition rejected the Russian–American agreement, saying it would give the Assad regime an opportunity to stall.
I understand that the stance of the opposition is the other side of the coin, which is why we are pushing to not rush the chemical weapons case. Dealing with this issue is difficult and will take time. Anything can happen, especially given that the timeframe for dealing with the chemical weapons may continue well into 2014. And that is when Assad’s term in office is scheduled to come to an end. Therefore, the opposition is calling on the Arab League and international community to resolve the crisis from its roots via a political solution. Because of that, I hope that the Security Council issues a clearly defined decision under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. I believe that will be the beginning of the solution.
Q: What about your program in New York for the UN General Assembly?
We have a ministerial meeting on the 24th of this month to discuss various issues, and the Syrian issue will be at the top of our agenda. […]
I am also going to meet a large number of foreign ministers from the West, Africa, Asia and other countries. The first week of General Assembly meetings, during which the presidents speak, is very important. This has been the tradition since 1946. Of course, Obama’s address during this phase will be extremely important because he will be addressing a large number of issues. The Syrian and Palestinian issues will be of particular importance.
Q: But in the event that no side can be determined to be responsible for using internationally banned weapons, how can the international community ascribe blame?
We refused to say anything before the announcement of the results of the inspector’s investigations, because we had learned that they would not determine which side used the weapons. But the results might show who was responsible through other means in the report [through information contained in the report]. It might clarify that the weapons were fired from cannons or aircraft or rockets, and whomever has those weapons would be determined responsible.
Q: And what about the speech from Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani? Do you think that it will be anything new?
I imagine that it will be new for Iranian politics. I will meet the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, because he has been my friend for 25 years. I used to work with him in the United Nations and we know each other very well. I even used to talk with the previous foreign minister, [Ali Akbar] Salehi about the importance of no [foreign] state interfering in the domestic affairs [of another state], because this is internationally prohibited. I spoke with him at length on this issue and I intend to return to this same issue with the new minister.
Q: There is a proposal for an Arab-Chinese cooperation forum on a summit level. Will you be discussing these issues with the foreign minister of China while you are in New York?
Actually, relations are improving and strengthening such that we don’t require a summit. We have this general Arab–African summit in November, and that is very important. Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al-Hamed, the Kuwaiti foreign minister, plays a major role and is interested in this summit. He has very close relations with African nations, and Kuwait has a large number of investments in Africa. After that, there is the regular Arab summit in March, in Kuwait as well. Today we are working to prepare the case for the development of the Arab League, particularly as it is important to keep pace with the times.
Q: Isn’t it your view that the time has arrived when the Arab League must make binding decisions?
This is included in the issues that will be raised, but it should be remembered that Security Council decisions are technically binding—yet we find that Resolution 242 [issued after the Six–Day Way in 1967 calling on Israel to retreat from territory occupied in that war] has not been implemented to this day. Accordingly, I believe that binding decisions must be agreed upon so that they can implemented.
Q: And this desire is not just words. . . .
The desire is implementation, and league resolutions should be binding.
Q: But does commitment mean a road to improvement?
This is what we are working on, god willing.
Q: Let’s return one more time to the issue of the Arab League. What is your view of the Arab League? How can we improve its operations?
The Arab league represents the first generation of international organizations— its charter was prepared in September 1944, before the UN was established. The UN represents the second generation of international agreements, after the Arab League, and brought new concepts. When the UN wanted to develop itself at the end of the 1950s, it became clear that opening the door to changing the charter would be very difficult. It was suggested that the UN develop through putting in place new mechanisms to keep pace with international requirements. We have another example of a united model in Africa, which came after the Arab League and represents the third generation of international charters. The African Union developed mechanisms surpassing those of the UN in its ability to adapt. Even this hasn’t reached the UN yet, and thus it must move to the next stage and develop new concepts. In one example, the Arab League charter does not have one word about human rights, and only the words “social issues.” Thus it was an important issue raised by Bahrain to create a human rights court and tackle that issue.
Q: Where did the Arab Security and Peace Council go?
Its importance will be reviewed and it will be placed according to the will of the Arab states. We must establish the special court for human rights. In addition to other issues, there are four committees whose presentations are being reviewed for the summit, as I mentioned.
Q: One more time, how do you think the proposal for an additional summit focusing on Arab–Chinese cooperation will alter Arab work with China?
I have no objection and we have active agreements to hold an Arab–Chinese ministerial forum, which are on track to be a strong success. Commercial trade [between the Arab world and China] has more than doubled, and that is in China’s favor. We are trying to develop the Russian forum to stimulate more cooperation with Arab nations. Regarding Washington, the matter ended with the signing of a memorandum of understanding with Hillary Clinton last September, and we think that this forum is very important as it demonstrates bilateral cooperation. It is preferable that there are Arab–American relations for the benefit of all parties.
Q: Concerning Palestine: Will there be progress from the results of the Paris meeting held between the foreign ministers of the countries of the Arab Peace Initiative and John Kerry, the American secretary of state?
Permit me to begin with a brief foreword: The Arab nations cannot resolve the Palestinian issue alone. This is different from Syria, because it was possible for early Arab intervention in July 2011 to contribute to its resolution. But as for Palestine, it is known that the decisions issued by the Security Council are binding, yet they have not been implemented. For that reason, we formed the Peace Initiative led by Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, and in the initial period we were looking into going to the Security Council or the General Assembly. I supported going to the General Assembly in order to get the status, which they’ve since obtained, and through which Palestine became a state in the eyes of United Nations and in the international community. This means that the land occupied by Israel is the territory of another state and not contested territory, as they claim. But back then, at the last minute, Abu Mazen [Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas] chose to go to the Security Council to request full membership. After some discussion, I was persuaded by his view, because after all these years, and after the declaration of the state of Palestine in exile in 1988, he needed to seek what is his. And afterwards, if he didn’t get it, he could think about other approaches.
But after Abu Mazen spoke at the Security Council, he came under attack from a variety of countries. It was a fierce attack, as was to be expected. As you know, the General Assembly grants membership according to the UN Charter, but only after a recommendation by the Security Council. We didn’t get this recommendation, but the important thing is that afterwards we got a resolution from the General Assembly. The international community recognizes that Palestine is now a non-member state—an observer state. And this resolution was issued on the same day as the Partition Plan [in 1947]. The meetings between Arab states which began with the review of the peace process in 2011 concluded with the necessity of changing this course. It is not possible to continue managing the conflict, rather, the goal is to end the conflict. Thus, a clear decision was taken, and the United States and the United Nations all promised to go with us on this path.
During John Kerry’s visit on March 4, he announced that he supports ending the conflict, and furthermore they set up a nine-month timetable. Then came the Arab Summit in Doha, which assigned an Arab ministerial delegation to visit Washington on April 29. We met there with Secretary of State John Kerry, and the American vice president also attended and agreed to take up this issue, and agreed on the importance of establishing a viable Palestinian state. They have a plan that John Kerry himself will direct, and security issues will be taken up by Gen. John Allen, who was working in Afghanistan. They reached an agreement with 12 CEOs to take on large projects in the West Bank and Gaza in order to improve the standard of living within three years. But Israel is causing some problems by continuing to build settlements. This is unacceptable, and this topic was raised with US Secretary of State John Kerry at the Paris meeting and with the Arab foreign ministers of the Peace Initiative. As you know, we held a meeting in Amman, followed by Paris, and the parties agreed to hold another meeting in Paris this coming October.
Q: Has the agenda for the October meeting been set?
[The agenda is to] continue the discussions surrounding what has occurred and our perspectives. The Palestinian party shall also discuss their problems caused by Israel.
Q: The UN resolutions with regard to Palestine and other topics have not been implemented. In your participation at the September session meetings, did the Arab parties try to raise this issue, or make steps towards doing what is necessary to implement these binding resolutions within the framework of UN reform? After all, you have experience in this area.
This is indeed a very large topic, and it is all concerned with, and will be resolved by, a Security Council more representative of the development of the United Nations. When there were 51 UN members and 11 on the Security Council, you needed only seven votes to issue a resolution. Then, when the number of members rose to 115, the Security Council grew to 15 [members]—and it needs to increase even now.
But this isn’t the problem. It lies, in the essence, in the scope of the use of veto. Today, you won’t find a word in the UN Charter about the scope of the veto usage, and because of this the five permanent members use the veto on every issue. I’ve got examples of this: any resolution demanding a ceasefire should not be subject to a veto at all, nor any resolution to send humanitarian aid. It is not reasonable that a resolution concerning a threat of one state against another be vetoed. Even on the use of weapons of mass destruction by threatening states, resolutions are not made because of the veto. I believe that it is necessary to stir the Security Council to correct this situation. I presented these views when I was at one of the sessions. Any resolution demanding that the United Nations investigate a particular topic which threatens international peace and security, such as the dispatch of observers to Syria and the specification of their tasks, ought to include a determination of who used these weapons. But this specification of their task was removed from the resolution because other nations threatened that they would use the veto. Therefore, I believe that the veto has been much abused and it is time to change it.
Q: Do you mean that the time has come to remove the power of veto, because it threatens international peace and security?
The veto will not be abolished for a simple reason, because the UN Charter states that any amendments to the charter must be done in [one of] two ways: either through a general conference or through the five permanent members with the Secretary General, but either way the agreement of the permanent members is necessary. And here I’d like to mention with honor and respect the position of the Egyptian delegation in San Francisco in 1945. Abdel Hamid Basha Padawi, the first Egyptian judge on the International Court of Justice, suggested that decisions [in the UN Security Council] be based on majority decision-making.
Q: Is this reasonable?
Q: Could this suggestion be proposed again, given the problems we’re suffering as a result of the veto?
The Charter states that ten years after the ratification of the Charter—that is, in 1955—if no state has proposed a meeting to review the Charter, then this item be included automatically on the agenda of the General Assembly. It has been included, but no action has been taken.
Q: Could action be taken at the coming meeting?
Q: Through the Arab League?
We’d run into a wall. The only solution, in my view, is to take these topics out of the scope of the veto, as I said.