‘You are the sixteenth member of the Security Council.”
China’s UN Ambassador Li BaoDong speaking to the international media
In March, China took over the rotating presidency of the Security Council for the month. As is the practice at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, on March 2, the 2nd day of his presidency, Li Baodong, China’s Ambassador to the UN, held a press conference for journalists at the UN.(1) At the beginning of the press conference, he welcomed the media, saying that the media is the “sixteenth member of the Security Council.” (There are 15 member nations on the UN Security Council.)
Thinking of the international media in such a way recognizes its influence on the actions of the UN Security Council. This presents an interesting phenomenon which it is important to understand. The international media does indeed play a role in how the Security Council deals with issues. What is the nature of this role?
At times, the role is a negative role, supporting big power dominance of Security Council affairs. Occasionally, the media helps to prevent the worst possible actions the Security Council might otherwise take. Looking at some examples can be helpful.
Recently, for example, reporters for news media like Aljazeera and BBC were quick to broadcast condemnations of the Libyan government for attacking protesters. But if one listened carefully to broadcasts about Libya by these news organizations, one would notice that there was little verifiable evidence to back up the claims by the news organizations.
Some of the problem was the sources used by the media. For example, at the UN, the Deputy Ambassador for Libya told the media that what was happening in Libya was “genocide”. A few words later, he said “I hope the information I get is not accurate.”(2)
Another example is a statement by the UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and International Relief Coordinator, Valerie Amos to journalists on Monday, February 28, that there were 1000 – 2000 dead in Tripoli.(3) A few words later she admitted that this was not based on any actual reports, but an estimate.
Instead of the media questioning these numbers and encouraging an impartial investigation of what is happening in Libya, many reporters fixed on whether Security Council member nations would support setting up a No Fly Zone in Libya.
The obligation under the UN charter is to promote the peaceful resolution of conflict situations that threaten international peace and security. Setting up a no-fly zone, however, is essentially a declaration of war. The UN charter upholds the sovereignty of nations to settle affairs that “are within the domestic jurisdiction.” Much of the media, however, was urging Security Council members to intervene in Libya without determining whether the conflict in Libya was an internal matter or one justifying international intervention.
But what happens when the media spreads misconceptions and a false framing of a conflict situation? Consider the period leading up to the invasion of Iraq.
In that situation, a high level government official of one of the nations that is a permament member of the Security Council, made allegations that Iraq possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). Those allegations were proven to be false, but not until the damage intended by those instigating this misrepresentation had been achieved. The false framing of the Iraq story by much of the English language mainstream media was used to provide the pretext for the US, Great Britain and others to invade the country in a campaign of “shock and awe.”
It is worth noting, however, that the Security Council did not authorize the invasion of Iraq. One Ambassador explained that Security Council members were able to resist the pressure from the US and the UK for a resolution authorizing the invasion, because some of the international media provided needed coverage of those on the Security Council challenging such a resolution, and of the protesters in European countries opposed to such Security Council action.
In the situation which led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, much of the English language press had played a role that was a harmful role, a role that failed to expose the rush to military action based on a false narrative about Iraq. Some international media, however, by covering opposition by some Security Council members and of protesters opposed to such an invasion, helped to prevent the Security Council from adding to the harm.
US political theorist Joseph S. Nye, Jr. in an article in the November/December 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs, defines power as the ability to attain what one wants. He argues that “conventional wisdom holds that the state with the largest army prevails, but in the information age, the state (or nonstate actor) with the best story may sometimes win.” (4) If one accepts Nye’s argument of the importance of the media, how the conflict is framed in the media can be as important or even more important for military strategy than a military campaign.
In a recent statement to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, March 1, the Venezuelan Ambassador to the UN, Jorge Valero, stressed the need for an objective and credible investigation in Libya to confirm the veracity of the facts that media like Aljazeera and BBC had been broadcasting around the world. “No country can be condemned a priori,” said Ambassador Valero. He was stating his nation’s reservations regarding the decision of the UN General Assembly to suspend Libya from the rights of membership in the Human Rights Council before the conclusions of such an investigation.(5)
Sometimes the Security Council acts in a way that promotes the peaceful settlement of disputes. Often such action, however, receives little or no public attention. For example, in June 2010, the Security Council took up the dispute over the sinking of the South Korean ship, the Cheonan. North Korea and South Korea were given a chance to present their views concerning the sinking of the ship.
The UN Security Council scheduled a procedure to hear from both of the parties to the dispute. In this situation there had been a vigorous debate in the online media and many netizens expressed their criticism of the South Korean government investigation.(6) Scientists, activists in non-govermental organizations and others wrote letters to the Security Council expressing their questions and criticisms of South Korea’s inquiry into the sinking of the Cheonan.(7) Also the Russian Federation sent a team to South Korea to examine the evidence used in the South Korean government investigation. The Russian team disagreed with the conclusions of the South Korean government investigation.(8)
Subsequently the Security Council issued a Presidential Statement which recognized there were different views on the issue and encouraged a process for peacefully settling the dispute.(9) There was little recognition in much of the media, however, of this effort to defuse the conflict. A notable exception were articles from the Mexican press service Notimex.(10) Still in the US media, however, and even in the testimony of government officials to the US Congress, there are descriptions of the Security Council’s statement on the Cheonan which inaccurately claim that the statement condemned North Korea. This is a false representation of the Security Council action. (11) Had the media covered the balanced approach better, there would be less chance of such inaccurate characterizations of the Security Council’s Presidential Statement about the Cheonan.
Since the media can indeed play a role in the affairs of the UN Security Council, it is all the more essential that Ambassadors of UN member nations, journalists covering the UN, and netizens discussing UN related issues online, recognize the purpose of the United Nations is to foster friendly relations among nations. The obligation of all related to the UN is to seek the peaceful settlement of disputes and to act as a watchdog encouraging Security Council actions which fulfill its charter obligations.
1. Press Conference: Li Baodong (China) President of the Security Council for the month of March, 2 March 2011.
Ambassador Li Baodong, Permanent Representative of China and President of the Security Council for the month of March, will brief on the Security Council’s Programme of Work for the month of March 2011.
2. Security Council Media Stakeout, 22 February 2011, Ibrahim O.A. Dabbashi (Libya) on the situation in Libya
Informal comments to the Media by H.E. Mr. Ibrahim O. A. Dabbashi, Ambassador, Deputy Permanent Representative of Libya to the United Nations
“Now they are attacking the people in all of western Libya. I think the people have no arms. I think the genocide started now. I think the Ghadaffi statement was only a code to start the genocide against the Libyan people. I hope the information I get is not accurate. But if it is right, it will be real genocide.”
3. 28 February 2011. Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General with guest Valerie Amos, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.
4. Joseph S. Nye, Jr. “The Future of American Power”, Foreign Affairs , November/December 2010, vol 89, p.2-12.
5. “Venezuela slams U.S. at suspension of Libya from Human Rights Council”, Xinhua, updated,
“A decision like this could only take place after an objective and credible investigation that confirms the veracity of the facts, ” he said. “No country can be condemned a priori. We consider this decision precipitated, without first awaiting the results of the Independent International Inquiry Commission designated by the Human Rights Council.”
6. Ronda Hauben, “Netizens Question Cause of Cheonan Tragedy”, OhmyNews International, June 8, 2010.
7. Ronda Hauben, “S. Korean Gov’t Urged to End Criminal Investigation of NGO for Questions on Cheonan Sent to UN”, June 26, 2010, taz.de
http://blogs.taz.de/netizenblog/2010/06/26/s_korean_govt_urged_to_end_criminal_investigation_of_ngo/See also Hankyoreh video, “Beneath the Surface: the investigation into the sinking of the Cheonan”
8. “Russia’s Cheonan investigation suspects that the sinking Cheonan ship was caused by a mine in water”,
9. Ronda Hauben, “In Cheonan Dispute UN Security Council Acts in Accord with UN Charter”, Sept. 5, 2010, taz.de.
10. See for example, Maurizio Guerrero,”Heller mediacion de Mexico en conflicto de Peninsula de Corea”, Notimex, July 5, 2010 (published in en la Economia)
11. Such a misrepresentation appeared in the testimony of Stephen Bosworth, the US government envoy for North Korea, to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee which he presented on March 1, 2011. See for example, “North Korea’s provocative actions have continued this past year, with its sinking of the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) corvette Cheonan in March, and its artillery attack of South Korean Yeonpyong Island in November. The United Nations Security Council issued a strong statement condemning (sic) the attack which lead to the sinking of the Cheonan.”