The challenge of Security Council reform has been on the agenda at the United Nations for decades with little obvious effect on the workings of the Security Council itself.(1)
But what happens when an action of the Security Council is an improvement over past Security Council practices and presents an important model for conflict resolution in line with the obligations of the Charter? Will there be recognition of the peaceful direction that the action points in or will it be ignored and members of the Security Council revert back to the practice of the past?
The situation I am referring to is the consideration by the Security Council of the sinking of the South Korean naval warship, the Cheonan. The dispute over the sinking of the Cheonan was brought to the Security Council in June and a Presidential Statement was agreed to in July.
An account of some of what happened in the Security Council during an important part of this process is described in an article in Spanish that has appeared in several different Spanish language publications. The article, “Heller mediacion de Mexico en conflict de Peninsula de Corea” by Maurizio Guerrero, the UN Correspondent for Notimex (the Mexican News Agency), was published on July 5. (2) The article describes the experience of the Mexican Ambassador to the UN, Claude Heller in his position as president of the Security Council for the month of June.
In a letter to the Security Council dated June 4, the Republic of Korea (ROK) more commonly known as South Korea, asked the Council to take up the Cheonan dispute. Park Im-kook, the South Korean Ambassador to the UN requested that the Security Council consider the matter of the Cheonan and respond in an appropriate manner. (3) The letter described an investigation into the sinking of the Cheonan carried out by South Korean government and military officials. The conclusion was to accuse North Korea of sinking the South Korean ship.
Sin Son Ho is the UN Ambassador from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), which is more commonly known as North Korea. He sent a letter dated June 8 to the Security Council, which denied the allegation that his country was to blame. (4) His letter urged the Security Council not to be the victim of deceptive claims, as had happened with Iraq in 2003. It asked the Security Council to support its call to be able to examine the evidence and to be involved in a new and more independent investigation on the sinking of the Cheonan.
How would the Mexican Ambassador as President of the Security Council during the month of June handle this dispute? (The presidency rotates each month to a different Security Council member.) This was a serious issue facing Heller as he began his presidency in June 2010.
Heller adopted what he refers to as a “balanced” approach to treat both governments on the Korean peninsula in a fair and objective manner. He held bilateral meetings with each member of the Security Council which led to support for a process of informal presentations by both of the Koreas to the members of the Security Council.
What Heller calls “interactive informal meetings” were held on June 14 with the South Koreans and the North Koreans in separate sessions attended by the Security Council members, along with a time to ask questions and then to discuss the presentations.
At a media stakeout on June 14, after the day’s presentations ended, Heller said that it was important to have received the detailed presentation by South Korea and also to know and learn the arguments of North Korea. He commented that “it was very important that North Korea approached the Security Council.” In response to a question about his view on the issues presented, he replied, “I am not a judge. I think we will go on with the consultations to deal in a proper manner on the issue.”(5)
During June, Heller held meetings with the UN Ambassadors from each of the two Koreas and then with Security Council members about the Cheonan issue. On the last day of his presidency, on June 30, he was asked by the media what was happening about the Cheonan dispute. He responded that the issue of contention was over the evaluation of the South Korean government’s investigation.
Heller describes how he introduced what he refers to as “an innovation” into the Security Council process. As the month of June ended, the issue was not yet resolved, but the “innovation” set a basis to build on the progress that was achieved during the month of his presidency.
The “innovation” Heller refers to, is a summary of the positions of each of the two Koreas on the issue, taking care to present each objectively. Heller explains that this summary was not an official document, so it did not have to be approved by the other members of the Council. This summary provided the basis for further negotiations. He believed that it had a positive impact on the process of consideration in the Council, making possible the agreement that was later to be expressed in the Presidential statement on the Cheonan that was issued by the Security Council on July 9.
Heller’s goal, he explains, was to “at all times be as objective as possible” so as to avoid increasing the conflict on the Korean peninsula. Such a goal is the Security Council’s obligation under the UN charter.
In the Security Council’s Presidential Statement on the Cheonan, what stands out is that the statement follows the pattern that Heller described of presenting the views of each of the Koreas and urging that the dispute be settled in a peaceful manner.(6)
In the statement, the members of the Security Council do not blame North Korea. Instead they refer to the South Korean investigation and its conclusion, expressing their “deep concern” about the “findings” of the investigation.
Analyzing the Presidential Statement, the Korean newspaper Hankyoreh noted that the statement “allows for a double interpretation and does not blame or place consequences on North Korea.” (7) Such a possibility of a “double interpretation” allows different interpretations.
Some of the articles that have appeared in the English language media about the Cheonan, however, appear to be oblivious to the effort to accommodate the different viewpoints in the Presidential Statement. For example, an editorial in the New York Times about the Presidential Statement complained that the statement contained “weasel wording about blame.”(8)
An AP article reported that the US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, and the South Korean Ambassador, Park Im-kook said the Presidential Statement “made clear who to blame” for the attack on the Cheonan.(9) Instead of directly pointing out this is contrary to the wording of the statement, however, the AP article notes that in private some diplomats and analysts expressed concern that the statement didn’t blame Pyongyang.
Another article in the New York Times, however, referred to a statement of Li Baodong, China’s Ambassador to the UN, that the Presidential statement moved matters in “the right direction” because it urged “the parties concerned” to avoid escalating tensions.(10)
Russia had sent a team of experts to South Korea to do its own evaluation on the South Korean findings. Though the Russian evaluation has not been released publicly, a leaked copy was the subject of articles in Hankyoreh. These describe how the Russian team of experts disagreed with the South Korean government’s conclusions about the sinking of the Cheonan. The Russian experts observed the ship’s propeller had become entangled in a fishing net and subsequently a possible cause of the sinking could have been that the ship had hit the antennae of a mine which then exploded. (11)
The Presidential Statement explains that “The Security Council takes note of the responses from other relevant parties, including the DPRK, which has stated that it had nothing to do with the incident.” (12)
With the exception of the DPRK, it is not indicated who “the other relevant parties” are. It does suggest, however, that it is likely some Security Council members, not just Russia and China, who did not agree with the conclusions of the South Korean investigation.
The Security Council action on the Cheonan took place in a situation where there has been a wide ranging international critique, especially in the online media, about the problems of the South Korean investigation, and of the ROK government’s failure to make public any substantial documentation of its investigation, along with its practice of harassing critics of the ROK claims.
The US media, however, for the most part has chosen to ignore the many critiques which have appeared. These critiques of the South Korean government’s investigation of the Cheonan sinking have appeared not only in Korean, but also in English, in Japanese, and in other languages. They present a wide ranging challenge of the veracity and integrity of the South Korean investigation and its conclusions.
An article in the Los Angeles Times on July 28 noted the fact that the media in the US has ignored the critique of the South Korean government investigation that is being discussed and spread around the world.(13) More recently, on August 31, an Op Ed by Donald Gregg, a former US Ambassador to South Korea, appeared in the New York Times, titled “Testing North Korean Waters.” The article noted that “not everyone agrees that the Cheonan was sunk by North Korea. Pyongyang has consistently denied responsibility, and both China and Russia opposed a U.N. Security Council resolution laying blame on North Korea.” (14).
In a subsequent interview with the Washington Correspondent for Hankyoreh, Gregg adds that the Russian team’s conclusions could only be tentative because they were not given access to all the materials they needed for their investigation. The Russian team recommended that the Chinese not make an effort to review the South Korean investigation. They would likely not have access to all the materials needed to be able to do an adequate review.
In his Op Ed in the New York Times, Gregg maintains that, “The disputed interpretations of the sinking of the Cheonan remain central to any effort to reverse course and to get on track toward dealing effectively with North Korea on critical issues such as the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”Therefore, he urges the South Korean government to make public the study it has done.
Gregg’s public statements are just one example of the disagreement around the world, along with the Chinese and Russian governments, with the South Korean government’s conclusions about the sinking of the Cheonan and about the process of the investigation itself.
North Korea referred to this widespread international sentiment in its June 8 letter to the Security Council. The UN Ambassador from North Korea wrote(15):
“It would be very useful to remind ourselves of the ever-increasing international doubts and criticisms, going beyond the internal boundary of south Korea, over the ‘investigation result’ from the very moment of its release….”
The situation that the North Korean Ambassador is referring to is one marked by actions on the part of the South Korean netizens and civil society who challenged the process and results of the South Korean government’s investigation. There is support for the South Korean critics by bloggers, scientists and journalists around the world, writing in a multitude of languages and from many perspectives. A number of the non-governmental organizations and scientists in South Korea sent the results of their investigations and research to members of the Security Council to provide them with the background and facts needed to make an informed decision.(16)
The result of such efforts is something that is unusual in the process of recent Security Council activity. Most often decisions are made according to the degree of power and self interest in the issue being considered, rather than according to an impartial analysis of the problem and an effort to hear from all those with an interest in the issue. But an impartial analysis is what is required by the obligations of the UN Charter.
In its June 8 letter to the Security Council, North Korea referred to the earlier experience of the Security Council, to the February 5 2003 Security Council meeting when US Secretary of State Colin Powell made his presentation of his “evidence” that weapons of mass destruction existed in Iraq. The US then used these claims as the pretext for its invasion of Iraq in March 2003.(17)
The June 8 letter from North Korea urges:
“It is imperative for the Security Council not to step into the same situation in which it was once misused as a tool of high-handedness and hegemony of the United States by giving legitimacy to its armed invasion into Iraq, based on a single word of lies of Powell, United States Secretary of State, in February 2003.”
“The Security Council is duty bound to adhere strictly to the principles of respect for the sovereignty and impartiality of United Nations Member States, as enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations.”
The process of how the Security Council took up and determined its response to the dispute on the Cheonon is an important example of a different process than that which occurred in the Iraq situation. The effort in the Security Council described by the Mexican Ambassador, to uphold the principles of impartiality and respectful treatment of all members involved in a problem, is the kind of process outlined in the UN Charter.
The process instituted by the Mexican presidency of the Security Council in June with respect to the Cheonan dispute has the potential of providing for a significant precedent in the process of Security Council reform. It represents an important example of the Security Council acting in conformity with its obligations as set out in the UN charter.
In the July 9 Presidential Statement, the Security Council urges that the parties to the dispute over the sinking of the Cheonan find a means to peacefully settle the dispute. The statement says:
“The Security Council calls for full adherence to the Korean Armistice Agreement and encourages the settlement of outstanding issues on the Korean peninsula by peaceful means to resume direct dialogue and negotiation through appropriate channels as early as possible, with a view to avoiding conflicts and averting escalation.”
Ambassador Gregg is only one of many around the world who have expressed their concern with the course of action of the US and South Korea which is contrary to the direction of the UN Security Council Presidential Statement. Gregg explained his fear that the truth of the Cheonan sinking “may elude us, as it did after the infamous Tonkin Bay incident of 1964, that was used to drag us (the US) into the abyss of the Vietnam War.”(18)
The Security Council Action on the Cheonan dispute, if it is recognized and supported, has set the basis instead for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.(19)
1)Ronda Hauben, UN Security Council Reform in Focus, OhmyNews International,
September 15, 2008.
2)Maurizio Guerrero,”Heller mediacion de Mexico en conflict de Peninsula de Corea”, Notimex, July 5, 2010 (published in en la Economia)
With the Cheonan Dispute: UN Security Council Discovers the UN Charter
3)Security Council, S/2010/281
“Letter dated 4 June 2010”
4) Security Council, S/2010/294, June 8, 2010
5)Ambassador Claude Heller on June 14 stakeout
Media Stakeout: Informal comments to the Media by the President of the Security Council and the Permanent Representative of Mexico, H.E. Mr. Claude Heller on the Cheonan incident (the sinking of the ship from the Republic of Korea) and on Kyrgyzstan.
[Webcast: Archived Video – 5 minutes ]
6)UN Security Council, S/PRST/2010/13
7)Lee Jae-hoon,“Presidential Statement allows for a ‘double interpretation, and does not blame or place consequences upon N. Korea.”, Hankyoreh, July 10, 2010.
8)“Security Council Blinks”, Editorial, NYT, July 10, 2010.
9)Edith Lederer, “UN Condemns SKorea ship sinking”, AP, July 10, 2010.
10) Neil MacFaquahar, Condemnation of Ship’s Sinking is a ‘Victory’ North Korea Says, New York Times, July 9, 2010, a version of online article appeared in print edition on July 10, 2010, p.6.
11)“Russian Navy Team’s Analysis of the Cheonan Incident”, Posted on July 27, Hankyoreh, modified on July 29.
http://www.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_northkorea/432230.htmlThe Russian Experts document is titled “Data from the Russian Naval Expert Group’s Investigation into the Cause of the South Korean Naval Vessel Cheonan’s Sinking”
See also “Russia’s Cheonan Investigation Suspects that Sinking Cheonan Ship was Caused by a Mine”, posted on July 27, 2010, Hankyoreh, modified on July 28, 2010.
12) UN Security Council, S/PRST/2010/13
Presidential Statement of July 9, 2010
13) Barbara Demick and John M. Glionna, “Doubts Surface on North Korean Role in Ship Sinking”, Los Angeles Times, July 23, 2010.
14) Donald P. Gregg, “Testing North Korean Waters,” New York Times, August 31, 2010.
15)Security Council, S/2010/294, June 8, 2010
Letter, DPKR June 8 2010
16) See for example:
Ronda Hauben, “Netizens Question Cause of Cheonan Tragedy,” OhmyNews International, June 8, 2010.
Ronda Hauben, “Questioning Cheonan Investigation Stirs Controversy,” OhmyNews International, June 29, 2010.
17)Security Council, S/2010/294, June 8, 2010
Colin Powell to the UN Feb 5 2003
UN news article:
18) Tae-ho Kwon,” South Korean Government Impeded Russian Team’s Cheonan Investigation: Donald Gregg”, Hankyoreh, September 4, 2010.
19) See for example “PSPD’s Stance on the Presidential Statement of the UNSC Regarding the Sinking of the ROK Naval Vessel Cheonan”