Ban Ki-Moon Thanks U.N. Security Council--As It Fails to Respond to Chemical Attack in Syria

By Patrick Goodenough | August 23, 2013 | 4:38 AM EDT

Argentina’s ambassador to the U.N. Maria Cristina Perceval walks away from the media stakeout microphone after delivering “informal comments” after a Security Council meeting on Syria on Wednesday, August 21, 2013. (Image: U.N. webcast)

( – U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday put a brave face on the failure of the U.N. Security Council to present a united front in responding to claims of a significant chemical weapons attack in Syria, thanking it for its “prompt action” in convening a meeting quickly to discuss the emergency.

With Russia playing its customary role of defending the Assad regime, an “urgent” meeting of the council Wednesday was unable to agree even on a “press statement,” the weakest of three options available to it.

Instead it was left to the representative of Argentina, which holds the rotating presidency this month, to read out a few lines after the meeting at a media stakeout microphone. The U.N. officially described them as “informal comments.”

The remarks by Argentina’s Maria Cristina Perceval did not include the word “condemn” or similar. They also did not include an explicit call for a U.N. investigation into the chemical attack allegations, but merely welcomed a call by Ban for one to take place.

Perceval also said there was “a strong concern among council members about the allegations and a general sense that there must be clarity on what happened and the situation has to be followed closely.”

Ban, speaking in the South Korean capital Seoul on Friday, noted appreciatively that the Security Council had “backed my call for a thorough, impartial and prompt investigation.”

“I thank the Security Council members’ prompt action and call for them to remain actively engaged on this crisis.”

In the hierarchy of Security Council pronouncements, resolutions (“formal expressions of the opinion or will of United Nations organs”) are the strongest. Next come presidential statements (“a statement made by the president of the Security Council on behalf of the Council, adopted at a formal meeting of the Council and issued as an official document of the Council.”)

Finally the third and weakest option is a press statement (“a declaration to the media made by the president of the Security Council on behalf of all 15 members [and] issued as a United Nations press release.”)

Argentina’s ambassador to the U.N. Maria Cristina Perceval delivers “informal comments” to reporters after a Security Council meeting on Syria on Wednesday, August 21, 2013. (U.N. Photo by Rick Bajornas)

The “informal” verbal comments made by Argentina’s envoy did not reach even the level of a press statement.

Ban’s own response to the alleged attack has been much stronger than the council’s.

“I condemn in the strongest possible terms this escalation of violence,” he said Friday in Seoul. “I am especially troubled by reports that chemical weapons might have been used against civilian populations.”

“Any use of chemical weapons anywhere, by anybody, under any circumstances, would violate international law. Such a crime against humanity should result in serious consequences for the perpetrator.”

Ban repeated his call for the Syrian government to allow a U.N. inspection team – currently in Damascus to investigate earlier claims of chemical weapons use – access to the location of the alleged attack.

“I can think of no good reason why any party – either government or opposition forces – would decline this opportunity to get to the truth of the matter,” he said. Ban said he has deployed the U.N.’s top disarmament official, Angela Kane, to Syria “to underscore the urgency of an immediate investigation,” and added, “there is no time to waste.”

Kane was involved in earlier negotiations with the Syrians over the entry of the U.N. team, which is mandated to probe only three specific earlier instances of claimed chemical use.

U.N. high commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay also urged all parties in Syria to allow the team to examine the site urgently, saying the chemical attack allegations “need to be comprehensively proved or disproved as soon as is humanly possible.”

‘The president has his priorities straight’

President Bashar Assad’s regime and the opposition fighting to topple it have accused each other of using chemical weapons this week in a rebel-controlled area near the capital. Video clips posted online by opposition activists show scores of bodies and scenes of children and adults struggling to breathe, and hundreds of deaths have been reported.

“The images that we’ve seen are nothing short of horrifying,” White House principal deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday. “And that is why the senior administration officials have been in touch with their counterparts around the world to coordinate on our response. There was some consultation at the United Nations Security Council yesterday.”

He renewed his call from a day earlier for Syria to allow the U.N. investigators unfettered access to the attack site.

In reply to a question Earnest defended President Obama for continuing his scheduled bus tour of the north-east to promote his college reform plans despite the Syrian developments.

“Seeking a better bargain for the middle class is a top priority of the president’s,” he said. “And as we’re weighing these domestic policy decisions, and as we’re weighing these foreign policy decisions, the president puts the interest of the United States of America first.”

“And I think the fact that we are doing this bus tour is an indication that the president has his priorities straight while he continues to monitor what is an increasingly tragic situation in Syria.”

In Berlin, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle expressed “regret that Russia and China have blocked a formal resolution of the Security Council.”

But Moscow on Thursday reiterated its skepticism about the claims.

“It all looks like attempts to use any means to persuade the U.N. Security Council to take the side of the opponents of the regime and to derail the preparation of the Geneva conference,” said foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich.

Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov have been working for months on a plan to convene a conference in Geneva to push forward a Syrian political transition involving regime and rebel representatives.

U.S. and Russian officials are scheduled to meet in The Hague next Wednesday to discuss the stalled initiative.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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