Coffee in Caracas??

By the Editor – mid 20th century arrangements begin to creek up the pressures of 21st century realities.  Do countries lose their legitimacy consequent of their actions?  Should this be reflected in the court of international opinion – the UN.  The author highlights how some have worked round process to deliver more truthful appreciations.  But is it time to bite the bullet regarding reform of UN processes (especially the UNSC) or, imperfect as it might be, is it about as good as it gets?

Text Box:  Diego Arria Venezuela’s Permanent Representative to the UN 1991-1993 (Wikipedia)Venezuela – a name that conjures up thoughts of “it’s complicated”, Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro…  Does it also strike you as the nation that produced a lasting and seemingly so simple innovation for diplomacy and ’speaking truth to power’ from one of its own (that no-one else had managed to enact in, at that point, over 40 years of United Nations activity)?  It will now…  

As subscribers of The Naval Review meet together, in the convivial environment of the Wardroom Bar and Thursday Jaw, perhaps we can therefore learn something from Diego Arria, Venezuela’s former Permanent Representative to the United Nations (1991–1993) and President of the Security Council in March 1992.  I don’t know him personally but note that this is a man who confronted national leaders such as Chávez and even Chile’s President Pinochet, not with weapons but with words, personal courage and a persistence to confront those situations in which diplomats cannot and should not simply give up and walk away.  Engaging and still feisty in his 80s now, you can see the man for yourself rather than read what i happen to think:

Ambassador Diego Arria

When he found himself as one of the 15 national representatives that make up the United Nations Security Council, he was shocked by ‘the rules of the game’ – i.e. the rigid format of Council meetings, the power of the veto (from just five countries), let alone the ability (impunity?) for members to say “we didn’t know” at points in history when turning the proverbial ‘Nelsonian eye’ had huge implications for beleaguered peoples.  At the time, he felt he was hearing stories/perspectives that others on the Council were simply missing.  So he found a way.

I fully subscribe to his principle that just as “in Caracas, we could often sort an issue out over a coffee”, we too need to spend more time in environments where ‘procedure’ isn’t allowed to take precedence over the search for honesty, plain speaking, transparency, inclusiveness, legitimacy and indeed the very effectiveness of a group that should represent us all in furthering international peace and security.  Realising that he was not allowed to bring an eyewitness to the Council chamber itself (an individual with important perspectives on events in Bosnia and Herzegovina at the time), Diego Arria simply called fellow Council members for an informal gathering in the coffee lounge of the UN building.  And they came.  Since that day, there have been another 168 ‘Arria Formula’ meetings, and hence no excuse for Council members to avoid hearing what non-Council representatives and other hoped-for experts have to say as ’the truth’ is sought.

Look at the latest message on Twitter from the UK Mission to the United Nations on the 24th of March, after 140 nations voted in favour of a Resolution that is designed to send a clear signal that the international community demands that Moscow immediately halts its hostilities in Ukraine so that, at the very least, the humanitarian situation can be addressed:

And examine your thoughts as you consider the list of countries that abstained from this General Assembly vote (and yet don’t immediately jump to too many damning conclusions on this – these issues have more to them than should be interpreted from the unexplained results of any one vote).  I certainly hope that someone ‘drinks coffee’ with the representatives of South Africa and India (as but two examples).  I also hope such conversation does not just need to be diplomat-to-diplomat – serving military and retired military, and our nations think-tanks and universities, also might have a role.  Sharing perspectives may not change the price of fish today but it might make it easier to chat in ten years’ time, in different circumstances, when we are in different roles, but have made the effort to develop international and cross-government relationships over years.

Diego Arria found a way to get diplomats to listen, to hear, to be subjected to more versions of ’the truth’ and thereafter to explain their decisions to the world.  The current Ukraine crisis has yet again put a microscope on the workings of the United Nations Security Council (and surely all of us wish it to retain some utility; the alternatives offer nothing).  Russia’s power in that forum still exists but, surely, has lost much of its legitimacy (indeed morality), at least for the moment.  We could therefore be at a pivotal moment in terms of Security Council reform because it is hard to see how a Russian representative on the Council can both sign up to the Charter, with its determination to end ‘the scourge of war’, and yet see what his armed forces are doing at the behest of Vladimir Putin.  

Russia’s Vasily Nebenzya must feel incredibly awkward as he hears the words spoken by fellow representatives.  Perhaps he has rhino skin, but I just do not believe every Russian representative there in New York will be blind to ‘the truth’.  Until UN reform arrives, the Arria Formula will live on, and any of us who feels ‘there is something to say, something you must hear’, should continue to learn how to make coffee and invite opinions beyond our own.  To listen, and then pass judgement.  That’s why an individual who does not stem from the Naval Service can hope you even read these words and ask yourself: “What can I do to further conversation rather than violent confrontation?”

AVM (rtd) MICHAEL HARWOOD

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