Syria retains senior post at U.N. committee responsible for ‘decolonizing’ American Samoa

February 28, 2013

Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations Bashar Jaafari, who gets to keep his post at the decolonization committee. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Security Council are two of the most important multilateral political bodies in the world. But some of the U.N.'s other, less well-known committees can get a little, shall we say, wacky.

Take, for example, the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization. Given that the colonial era is mostly over, you might wonder why there even is such a committee. To be fair, there are 16 "non-self-governing territories" left in the world, most of them Caribbean or Pacific islands and most them held by the United Kingdom. There are also a few U.S. possessions on the list.

But the strange thing about the Special Committee on Decolonization isn't that it exists; its writ includes the Falkland Islands and the Western Sahara, after all, which are legitimate international issues. No, the thing about this committee is its leadership. It's chaired by Ecuador, but another top spot belongs to Syria, which just won reelection as rapporteur of the committee.

Yes, the same Syrian government that has killed thousands of civilians in a brutal civil war was just reappointed to a senior position at a United Nations committee in charge of "decolonizing," among other places, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and American Samoa.

In a great post on the bizarre politics of U.N. committee assignments, Colum Lynch points out that Syria is not the first pariah state to win a top spot at a United Nations body charged with global do-gooding. Sudan almost secured the chairmanship of a session on humanitarian assistance, despite the fact that it blocked humanitarian aid agencies from its internal conflict zones.

Why does this happen? Does the United Nations as a collective organization think that Sudan is a model of humanitarian assistance and that Syria should be in charge of decolonizing Guam? Does this prove that the United Nations is irrelevant and hopeless? Of course not; it's all about the quirks of Turtle Bay politics. Lynch ably explains:

The reason that controversial governments routinely come under consideration for U.N. assignments that promote causes, like human rights, that they suppress at home, is due to the influence of regional blocs that assign plum jobs.

The principal U.N. regional groups -- the Arab Group, the Asia Group, the Africa Group, the Latin American Group, and the Western European and Others Group (which includes the United States) -- have traditionally each put forth a slate of candidates for key U.N. posts, thereby forgoing the demands of an open election. The groups seek to ensure each country in their group gets a shot at serving on key U.N. committees and panels.

"This is a problem that has plagued the United Nations for decades," said one Western official. "Clearly, regional groups have fallen down on the job when they put forward embarrassingly inappropriate candidates to represent them."

Another factor is that countries like Syria and Sudan are able to get the committee assignments in part because they crave them so badly as badges, however absurd, of international legitimacy. Lynch writes, "Over time, a persistent ambassador, no matter his country's record, can generally find his or her way on to a senior U.N. committee posting."

Fortunately, the committee appears to have little actual power over the world's 16 non-self-governing territories. That's probably good news for American Samoans who, however they feel about being a U.S. unincorporated territory, presumably would not be well served by Bashar al-Assad's influence in their lives. Still, it's too bad for places like Western Sahara, which could use a little international assistance.

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Max Fisher | February 27, 2013