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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Arab League fails again

The fact that the Security Council has had to step in to ensure Lebanon's independence signals the failure, yet again, of the Arab League.

Commentary by P R Kumaraswamy for ISN Security Watch (05/07/06)

The near-unanimous adoption in May of UN Security Council Resolution 1680 demanding that Syria recognize the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Lebanon more than anything further demonstrated the impotence and marginalization of the Arab League.

Formed in March 1945 by seven Arab states, with Egypt hosting the permanent headquarters, the Arab League's charter vows to, among other things, "guarantee the future of all Arab countries" and ensure their inviolability and territorial integrity - a commitment it has been unable to fulfill, resulting in calls from some quarters for the group to be disbanded.

Resolution 1680 was adopted on 17 May against the backdrop of growing US determination to isolate the Ba’athist regime, and the willingness of France, erstwhile Western patron of Damascus, to go along with it. While Russia abstained to ensure its leverage vis-à-vis its former client state, China had often abstained on sensitive UN decisions concerning the Middle East. Both Moscow and Beijing would prefer to take advantage of Syrian vulnerability to secure greater political concessions from Washington over any future vote on Iran.

But the real loser in the game is the Arab League.

The resolution explicitly calls on Syria to delineate its borders with Lebanon “especially in those areas where the border is uncertain or disputed.” This is not a major problem as most of the countries of the Middle East have serious border problems with their neighbors. At the height of imperialism, the European powers not only created new states in the Middle East but also disregarded ethno-national considerations. As a result, members of the same ethnic groups were scattered among different states (Kurds) or different groups were clubbed into one country (Iraq). As such, border disputes are a recurrent phenomenon in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.

However, a far more devastating threat to the League came from the Security Council demand that Syria “establish full diplomatic relations and representation” with Beirut and recognize “Lebanon’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence.” Such a demand should not have had to come from a UN Security Council resolution, when both Syria and Lebanon are members of the same Arab fraternity.

Syria has never recognized Lebanese sovereignty, considering the latter to be a part of historic Syria that was artificially ceded from the motherland. It treated Lebanon merely as a province and its representative in Beirut was known as "governor" rather than as ambassador. The prolonged civil war partly enabled Syria to treat Lebanon as its serfdom rather than as a sovereign entity. Indeed, even when it maintained over 30,000 troops, ostensibly to uphold domestic order in Lebanon, Syria never had an ambassador.

It has exercised complete control over every aspect of Lebanese polity. The continuation of Emile Lahoud as president underscores this Syrian stronghold. Under pressure from Damascus in 2004, the Lebanese parliament amended the constitution and extended his term by three years. Internal dissent eventually culminated in the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. Yet, even after the withdrawal of Syrian forces in the summer of last year, Lahoud is still president.

All of this has gone on uninterrupted by the Arab League.

The Lebanese case was not the only occasion when the Arab League failed to ensure the inviolability of national sovereignty and integrity. The League never managed to evolve a strategy against such blatant disregard for national independence. Unlike other regional organizations, it was unable to adopt a firm stand against the sanctity of national sovereignty.

Article One of the Arab League charter clearly states that membership is open to all “independent Arab states.” But it has had no mechanism to ensure that independence. Not only has the League been unable to prevent conflict between its member states, but it also has failed to ensure the inviolability of their sovereignty.

The Organization of African Union (OAU), the forerunner of the African Union (AU), for example, explicitly vowed to its member states “to defend their sovereignty, their territorial integrity and independence.” The League has no similar provision or tradition. Of course, Africa has not been free from inter-state wars, but no state has threatened to swallow another and gotten away with it. The critical issue is not territorial aggrandizement, rather the disappearance of the sovereignty of member states.

Whenever a small state has been threatened by its bigger Arab neighbor, the League has invariably failed to come to the rescue – a problem that began as far back as the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.

Vast areas that were allotted to an independent Arab state under the UN partition plan for Palestine came under the control of Transjordan (now Jordan). Despite protests from all other Arab states, they were subsequently annexed by Jordan and became the West Bank. The Arab League merely reconciled itself to the disappearance of the Palestinian state and pretended that these areas were being held in "trust" by the Hashemites.

In August 1990, when Saddam Hussein claimed Kuwait to be the 17th province of Iraq, the League once again showed its incompetence. A majority of members did condemn the invasion, occupation, and annexation of Kuwait and actively joined the US-led coalition. However, the League did not suspend Iraq for violating the independence of Kuwait. Egypt, on the other hand, was suspended from the League in 1979 for making peace with Israel.

In the current situation involving Lebanon, the League once again exhibits its limitations. In its desire to rally around a beleaguered member state, the League has trampled on Lebanese aspirations to be a normal independent state.

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