Rape Threats on Twitter Greet England’s New Bank Note: Interview with Caroline Criado-Perez

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A hard-won fight to get the writer Jane Austen's face on a bank note in England was greeted with rape threats targeting the effort’s main champion, Caroline Criado-Perez, cofounder of the Women's Room. 

Ms. Criado-Perez said the day after the decision was announced was the day she received her first threat, on Twitter. “And this descended into two and a half weeks of continual rape and death threats. They were incredibly graphic, incredibly violent and very specific about which parts of my body were going to have what happened to them—very gruesome things that were being suggested,” she told the Global Observatory.

Because the attacks were happening on Twitter, the perpetrators acted with abandon. “A lot of the people who were attacking me clearly felt that they could act with impunity—that no one was going to do anything about it. One of the men said, ‘Call the cops. We'll rape them too.’ They felt that there was going to be no come back for their actions.”

Eventually a Labour politician Stella Creasy got involved and put Ms. Criado-Perez in touch with a stalking advocate who works with the police, because “some of the men had become very obsessed with me and were now tracking all my movements online, looking into my family and work history.”

As a result of all this, Twitter introduced a new one-click button to report abuse on every post, though it took quite a bit of effort. “They certainly were eventually talking to me about these issues, and I am still in contact with Twitter,” she said.

“I think, to a certain extent, the message is getting through, but perhaps not quite as quickly as I would like. And I think also there are a lot of cultural barriers up. I suppose what I'm saying is that I think that social media companies tend to be run by people who don't tend to experience this kind of aggression and oppression.”

She said social media companies need to take upon themselves to ensure that their platforms ensure free speech for everyone, and not just the people who shout the loudest. “They are creating an amazing tool, and it's a tool that can make them a lot of money. But they’re giving themselves a lot of power here. And I hate to use an old cliché, but with power does come responsibility.”

The interview was conducted by Warren Hoge, Senior Adviser for External Relations at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Transcript

Warren Hoge: Our guest in the Global Observatory today is Caroline Criado-Perez, a freelance journalist, broadcaster, and feminist campaigner who is cofounder of the Women's Room, an organization that campaigns for more women experts in the media. She also started and ran the high-profile Keep Women on Banknotes campaign in the United Kingdom, which attracted global attention when she ended up in the center of a Twitter abuse storm receiving crude rape and death threats after the Bank of England decided to put the image of the nineteenth-century romantic novelist of manners, Jane Austen, on British bank notes. 

Caroline, though your situation got broad coverage, many people may not know the story, and it is an amazing story. So please go back to the beginning and tell us why you launched the women on bank notes campaign in the first place.

Caroline Criado-Perez: Well, basically what happened was that the Bank of England announced the new face of the new five-pound note, and that was going to be Winston Churchill; and I realized that as a result Winston Churchill being on the new five pound note, that meant that the one woman we had on notes, Elizabeth Fry, was going to be taken off. And that meant that there was going to be an all male and in fact all white line-up on our bank notes. And I felt that this sent a really damaging message about the contribution of anyone who wasn't a white man to British society and British history. And the bank of England themselves acknowledged the role that bank notes play in shaping our cultural narrative, and I was just really concerned that here was yet another decision about who we are going to celebrate in the public sphere that was going to be excluding women from it. 

So I started the campaign, challenging the bank of England’s decision, suggesting that they needed to review their selection procedures because they were clearly inadequate. I mean, if you end up with all men on bank notes, it suggests that your selection procedures aren't really thinking about the wide gamut of people’s contributions to society. And it was fantastic. In a way, it was quite sad to see how hard I had to fight for such a relatively minor thing as asking for a woman's face to be on bank notes. Three months of hard campaigning raising over thirteen-thousand pounds for a legal challenge, and a lot of stonewalling from the bank, but eventually they did agree that they needed to review their selection procedures. 

WH: Do you remember the reaction of Mervyn King, the then governor of the bank?

CCP: Oh yes, I do remember the reaction of Mervyn King. Mervyn King's reaction was initially very dismissive and quite patronizing. He said that the Queen was on all the bank notes. And there were a number of issues with that. For a start, the suggestion that I would start a campaign without ever having looked at a banknote and noted that the Queen was on all of them, and also indicating a total failure to engage with the type of debate that I was trying to have, which is how we value women in our society. The Queen is a woman, but she's not there by virtue of being a woman. She's there by virtue of being the monarch. She'd be there if she were a woman or not, she would also be there if she were an effective monarch or not. She’s there because of her role, not because of anything she's achieved.

And all the people who were on the other side of the bank notes were people who we agreed as a society had achieved great things and deserved to be honored. And a failure to include women in that list was very troubling to me and I felt indicative of a culture in which women aren't celebrated and women aren't recognized, and in my opinion, also leads to a culture in which women are not expected to be in the public sphere because we don't see women very much in the public sphere. And when we don't see women in the public sphere, it means women who do appear in the public sphere attract a lot of abuse, which is of course what ended up happening to me.

WH: Now, the Bank of England gets a new governor, the first non-Briton. I should point out a North American, a Canadian, and he decides to put the image of Jane Austen on the bank notes. At that point, you probably thought you'd had some success, but then what happened?



ICC Continues Work Against Impunity as African Union Meets to Discuss: Interview with Tiina Intelmann

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A meeting of the African Union on Friday has put the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the spotlight as countries on the continent voice concerns about the court, though these discussions are not new, said Tiina Intelmann, the ICC President of the Assembly of States Parties, in this interview with the Global Observatory on September 19. 

“There have been discussions about the relationship of the African Union and the ICC, and African states parties and the ICC, even before the Kenyan cases started,” she said. “This discussion has been ongoing with respect to the situation in Sudan, Darfur, [with] arrest warrants issued against President al-Bashir. So, it’s not a new discussion.”

“If we remember correctly, there were also some skeptics who thought that this court would never work, and it did start to work. And it has been doing quite remarkably, I should say. The proof of that is also all the self-referrals that countries have made of their situations,” she said.

“Uganda, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo—all of them came to the court and said, we do not have existing judicial instruments to take care of investigations and prosecutions of crimes that have happened in our territory," she said. "Mali—the same thing, just quite recently; and Comoros, even more recently asked the ICC to investigate specific crimes that had taken place on a ship that had been registered on the flag of Comoros.”

“Of course, when we established the court, we didn't think that it was going to be easy, and indeed, the path that we are following now is not easy at all,” she said. “We are fighting against impunity, and ultimately we try to prevent crimes from happening, but we are very far from that.” 

John Hirsch is Senior Adviser to the Africa program at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Transcript (edited for clarity)

John Hirsch: Good afternoon. We're here at the International Peace Institute with Ambassador Tiina Intelmann, the ICC President of the Assembly of States Parties, and I thank you very much for joining us today. 

Clearly, there was a need for the International Criminal Court when it was first established in 2002. How would you assess the performance of the courts over the past eleven years?

Tiina Intelmann: Yes indeed, there was a need for the International Criminal Court when it was established. If we remember correctly, there were also some skeptics who thought that this court would never work, and it did start to work. And it has been doing quite remarkably, I should say. The proof of that is also all the self-referrals that countries have made of their situations. 

Of course, when we established the court, we didn't think that it was going to be easy, and indeed, the path that we are following now is not easy at all. We are fighting against impunity, and ultimately we try to prevent crimes from happening, but we are very far from that. 

JH: Some countries have not signed up to the Rome Statute, in particular, very large countries; the United States, Russia, India. How does the lack of universal adherence constrain or impact the effectiveness of the ICC?



As Displaced Bru Population Return to Indian Region, Instability Could Follow

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For 16 years there have been more than 30,000 people living across six refugee camps in Tripura, a state in the northeast region of India. Since fleeing from ethnic violence in neighboring Mizoram in 1997, the people of these Bru communities (also known as Reang) have sought to return, and on Monday, September 30th, a new effort began to do just that. Last week, the first 84 Bru families were transported to Mamith district. 

Yet there still remains little progress towards a political or social settlement for the Bru people within Mizoram. Despite renewed rehabilitation packages offered to the displaced communities, there are still deep political and economic grievances that show little signs of being addressed. What remains is a situation vulnerable to prolonged instability: communities which perceive the treatment of ethnic groups as unjust; without means for peaceful recourse to their grievances; and a devolved, under-resourced and under-accountable security apparatus. 

The responsibility to protect displaced people in India usually falls to the state level, yet conflict-effected groups rarely are able to access these rights. India’s National Human Rights Commission is expanding its reach and mandate to obligate state action for displaced people. However, without any oversight of security forces in conflict-afflicted areas, the agency remains powerless in Mamith district. 

Analysis

The killing of a federal ranger in 1997 by Bru separatists triggered an escalation in ethnic tensions which had been growing over a proposed Autonomous District Council (ADC) for the Bru people. There are three ethnic ADCs in Mizoram, each for the Lai, Chakma and Mara populations. The Bru are recognized as one of India’s Scheduled Tribes and, like these other ethnic groups, exist outside the “Mizo” identity. In addition, India granted the Bru the status of “Primitive Tribal Group,” which indicated a need for special development and protection measures; however, it was not backed up by the same autonomous structures that other groups had been granted. 

Representing a population comparable to these other non-Mizo ethnic groups, Bru organizations began their campaign for an ADC, yet were met with fierce resistance from Mizo groups over its implications for reallocations of land and state resources. The ethnic conflict that unfolded involved the formation of a militant group called the Bru National Liberation Front (BNLF), and the displacement of around 45,000 Bru people. 



Locked Between Two Large Neighbors, Mongolia Seeks to Connect With the World

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Mongolia’s peaceful revolution in 1990 ushered in 23 years of democracy, and President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj believes his country can both be a model country and learn from others as he seeks good relationships and partnerships with the rest of the world. “After twenty years of doing democracy, I see one truth,” he said in this interview with the Global Observatory. “Democracy is not a destination. Democracy is a way.”

Landlocked between two of the world’s biggest powers, China and Russia, he said Mongolia also prizes its "third neighbor," which is what he calls other—even farflung—nations.  

“We have two big neighbors, and, of course, we are really striving to maintain neighborly good relations with our two neighbors. As well, we want to have good relations with other nations. All those other nations we call our third neighbor. This is the concept after 1990.”

"We are really committed to rule of law, human rights, and market economy. And those are attracting more investments, more people to Mongolia, and we would like to see more investments from our third neighbor."

Mongolia recently joined the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and served as chair of the Community of Democracies. “If we become more relevant, and I think also independent, and the security of Mongolia is guaranteed. That's my philosophy, and we are working for that.”

“I really believe that civil society is the soul of any nation,” he said. “Civil society is equal to democracy. If your people have that right, I think your nation benefits from that. People usually manage their life better than government manages people's lives.” The Mongolian president recently joined US President Barack Obama in launching a civil society initiative in New York. 

The son of a herdsman, the president expressed great joy at serving as the country's freely elected president. “Working for your people, serving your nation by their free choice? That's the greatest joy you can have.” 

The interview was conducted by Warren Hoge, Senior Adviser for External Relations at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Transcript (edited for clarity)

Warren Hoge: We are pleased to have a very distinguished guest in the Global Observatory today, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, the president of Mongolia. President Elbegdorj was sworn into office on July 10 for his second term as president of Mongolia. He was prime minister of the country twice, and he led the peaceful democratic revolution in 1990 that ended seven decades of communist rule in Mongolia. 

Mr. President, you have helped transform Mongolia from a dictatorship to a democracy in a single generation. That's quite an accomplishment. How did you do it?

President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj: You know, after twenty years of doing democracy, I see one truth. Democracy is not a destination. Democracy is a way. It can end after some time. I think still we have challenges. Even in some advanced countries have challenges related with democracy, with freedom. And we have challenges in Mongolia. 

I usually say that freedom is like a child; it never grows up, and you have to change the diapers every morning. And that's what we are doing in Mongolia. 

But in terms of the democracy, in terms of freedom, one thing is good—you can advance. I usually say that freedom, democracy, is a learning process. When you learn more, you can advance. You can make a little bit better decision. And with that, we can share our experiences. Of course, why we achieve that kind of result, I think, is thanks to our people’s support. And I really believe in the people’s power. And that power is, I think, the most amazing power that we have. 

WH: Mr. President, Mongolia is a landlocked country with two very big and very powerful neighbors, Russia and China. How does this affect your trade and foreign policy? And can you tell us a bit about your third neighbor policy? 

TE: Yes, we have two big neighbors, and, of course, we are really striving to maintain neighborly good relations with our two neighbors. As well, we want to have good relations with other nations. All those other nations we call our third neighbor. This is the concept after 1990. 

And I think we are really proud that with many of our third neighbors, we have great values connections. Of course, we don't have land connection with them, but we have values connection. We are really committed to rule of law, human rights, and market economy. And those are attracting more investments, more people to Mongolia, and we would like to see more investments from our third neighbor. It may help us to balance our investments in Mongolia. It may help us to balance those economic interests. I usually say to our two neighbors, "You know when we have more investors from third neighbor, you, our two neighbors, Russia and China, will have more opportunity to invest, to work together. And that is my message usually. And, of course, our two neighbors respect our way of life, and also we have great cooperation with our neighbor countries.

WH: Mongolia has recently joined the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, and chaired the Community of Democracies, for two years, I think. What other steps are you planning to project Mongolia’s profile in the international community?

TE: I think we were very happy to join Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and also we were very happy to chair Community of Democracies, and those involvements, that cooperation actually raised our profile internationally. And we would like cooperate with international organizations very closely. Mongolia is open for those international organizations, also regional organizations. Now, we are talking about becoming a member of APEC, for example, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation organization, and our neighbors in APEC member countries are actually supporting us. And we need to raise our profile, and one thing is that we need to make Mongolia more connected, more relevant to international issues. If we become more relevant, and I think also independent, the security of Mongolia is guaranteed. That's my philosophy, and we are working for that. 

WH: In that same connection, can you describe the Civil Society Initiative, and I think I'm right in thinking that you discussed this with President Obama, Yes? 

TE: Before coming to the UN, I received one invitation from the White House, and that invitation was from President Obama. And he asked me to join to supporting this civil society, and I was very happy, and I was the only president sitting together with President Obama launching that initiative in New York. 

I really believe that civil society is the soul of any nation. Civil society is equal to democracy. If your people have that right, I think your nation benefits from that. People usually manage their life better than government manages people's lives. And I believe in that. We need to give more access, more opportunities for civil society, and because of that, I joined that initiative, and I think our success in Mongolia also can be shared with others. I'm really happy to launch that initiative. 

WH: Mr. President, Mongolia has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. But with so much potential wealth, particularly from extraction industries, and yet a limited population and capacity, what steps are you taking to avoid the so-called resource curse?



Twenty Years After Black Hawk Down, What Lessons Have Been Learned?

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This week marks the 20th anniversary of Black Hawk Down, an American military operation on October 3-4, 1993 in which 18 American soldiers and over 500 Somalis were killed, and 78 Americans and thousands of Somalis wounded, in an attempt to capture top lieutenants of warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed.

Black Hawk Down brought to an end the American engagement in Somalia, and opened the way for the international abandonment of Somalia from 1995-2007. Furthermore, Black Hawk Down had major ramifications for the Clinton administration’s Africa policy, including the decision six months later not to become engaged in preventing the genocide in Rwanda. This 20th anniversary provides an opportunity to reflect on lessons learned about American military interventions in far away countries.

American efforts to assist the Somali people in coping with the man-made famine crisis precipitated by the fall of Siad Barre in January 1991 and the ensuing civil war were well intentioned. Appeals by American humanitarian organizations and Senators Howard Baker and Nancy Kassebaum led outgoing President George H.W. Bush to offer Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali an intermediate US-led peace operation (the United Task Force–UNITAF) before a second UN force (UNOSOM II) could be stood up in early 1993.

The US intervention, led by Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Johnston and Ambassador Robert Oakley (the latter had been US Ambassador to Somalia from 1982-84), took a conciliatory and cautious approach, underscoring that the Somalis had to decide their own destiny. The warlords were assured that UNITAF’s role was solely to assist in alleviating the famine crisis. Ambassador Oakley urged Somali leaders to enter into political dialogue to establish a new Somali government. They succeeded in persuading the warlords to set aside their “technicals” and open the roads to the delivery of relief supplies. A Civilian-Military Operations Command (CMOC) was set up as a unique and highly successful initiative whereby UNITAF forces accompanied delivery of relief and medical supplies by humanitarian agencies to the afflicted regions in the South. The humanitarian crisis was quickly mitigated if not totally resolved.

On January 3, 1993 during Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s visit to Mogadishu to review the security and humanitarian situation, Aideed organized a peaceful demonstration against him and his party accusing the UN of planning to impose a trusteeship on the Somali people. While the demonstration ended peacefully, Boutros-Ghali felt that the UN had been humiliated. In retrospect, this probably contributed to his willingness to see Aideed captured by Delta forces. Later, Republicans were to blame Boutros-Ghali for the deaths of the Delta forces.

At the transition from the Bush to the Clinton administration in January 1993, the political situation changed quickly, although on the surface it seemed relatively stable. In preparing for a successor peacekeeping force, the US Representative to the UN Security Council, Ambassador Madeline Albright, described the UN plans for Somalia as “an unprecedented enterprise aimed at nothing less than the restoration of an entire country.” The international community was going to re-build a “failed state.” This was the beginning of peacebuilding.



Trumping History with Hope in Great Lakes Region: Interview with Mary Robinson

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To implement the new “Framework of Hope” signed by eleven member states from arguably the most troubled region of Africa requires the involvement of a wide cross-section of the population in each of the signatory countries, said Mary Robinson, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General to the Great Lakes region in Africa.

“It's they who will benefit if the framework is implemented fully, so they should be active in encouraging each of their governments to make special efforts to ensure full implementation,” she said. “And they should be ready to hold their governments accountable for any failure to respond adequately.”

Ms. Robinson said women in the Great Lakes region are not just living in poverty, but in fear. “They can't walk the streets. They say it doesn't matter which armed group it is—or regular army, very often—they've had terrible problems of rape and re-rape, of displacement.”

About the framework, Ms. Robinson said there are signs that the member states really want it to work.

“I want to continue this dialogue, I want to continue to share the benchmarks at regional levels and the benchmarks at national levels,” she said. “This is for you—I think that's the message we have to get across.”

The interview was conducted by Marie O’Reilly, associate editor at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Transcript

Marie O'Reilly: I'm here today with Mary Robinson, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General to the Great Lakes region in Africa. Mary, thank you so much for speaking with us on the Global Observatory today.

Mary Robinson: It's a pleasure.

MOR: Mary, in your role, you have been heavily involved in listening and speaking with members of civil society, and in particular women, across the Great Lakes region. How are you feeding that into the broader peace process?

MR: It's very important to try to make this a framework that people see as a framework of hope. It’s for them. It's the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Democratic Republic of Congo and the region—and the region actually is a big region, because eleven member states have signed this framework. And they are committed to regional commitments and national commitments, and they have created mechanisms of oversight. And four institutions are guarantors that this will be implemented: the United Nations, the African Union, the Conference of the Great Lakes, and SADC [the Southern African Development Community]. I think that is a sign that this time, people really want it to work.

MOR: When you speak to women in the region, what do they tell you? What are their priorities?



Key Global Events to Watch in October

At the start of every month, the Global Observatory posts a list of key upcoming meetings and events that have implications for global affairs.

 

 

Peace & Security

      • October 1–November 1: Inspection of Syria's Chemical Weapons Stockpile
        A day after United Nations inspectors departed Damascus on September 30, a team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) began examining and cataloging Syria’s stockpiles. This comes after a September 26 Security Council resolution to support the destruction of all Syrian chemical weapons. Despite working on a shorter than usual timeline and in a conflict zone, the team expects to finish its report by the end of the month. 

        The OPCW Executive Council will hold its 74th session partway through this process on October 8 -11. Furthermore, the Executive Council will meet again on November 15 to discuss what information is gathered this month and to set ambitious milestones for the complete elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons by mid-2014. 

        The trip includes a stop in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for the annual encounter between the members of the UN Security Council and the African Union’s Peace and Security Council, a gathering that has been taking place since 2007. On the agenda, the institutional relationship between the two Councils, as well as the regional crises of main concern, including Central African Republic, the Great Lakes, Mali and the Sahel, Somalia and Sudan/South Sudan.

      • October 8: 7th Joint Annual Consultative Meeting between the African Union Peace and Security Council (AUPSC) and the UN Security Council
        Bringing together the African ambassadors of the AUPSC and their counterparts in the UN Security Council, the consultation, which will take place in Addis Ababa, aims to enhance the strategic partnership between the two councils with a view to strengthening their peacemaking efforts on issues of common concern in Africa. 

        In addition to the two councils’ partnership, the meeting will discuss the situation in the Central African Republic and the UN's contribution to an African-led international support mission in the country; the Great Lakes Region and the implementation of the February 2013 Framework Agreement for Peace, Security and Cooperation for the DRC and the region; the Sahel Region and the tension that surrounded the transfer from AFISMA to MINUSMA in July; Sudan and South Sudan and the issue of Abyei; and the situation in Somalia and the outcome of the joint AMISOM review and benchmarking exercise for a UN peacekeeping operation.

      • October 11-12: African Union Extraordinary Summit on the Relationship Between Africa and the International Criminal Court 
        African leaders will meet in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on October 11-12 to reflect on the relationship between Africa and the ICC and discuss whether or not to join Kenya's planned pull out from the International Criminal Court (ICC) over the prosecution of its leaders, though only one country, Uganda, has signaled it is seriously considering it. Thirty-four African countries have ratified the Rome Statute, with 17 of them being original signatories, though recent remarks by the African Union have challenged the integrity of the ICC. The trial against Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto, which began on September 10, 2013, and the pending trial of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta scheduled for November 12, 2013, are moving forward. 

      • October 15-16: Iran to Present Plan at P5+1 Meeting, Geneva
        Following a meeting last week with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran is set to present a nuclear development plan during the P5+1 talks in Geneva. The talks in Geneva, as well as further discussions with IAEA set for October 28, will seemingly focus on access to Tehran’s nuclear program and the lifting of international sanctions on Iran. 

        Since taking office in early August, President Hassan Rouhani has shown significant initiative to settle the decade-old dispute with the West over Iran’s nuclear development progress.

      • October 17: Security Council Elections, New York
        The five seats available for election this year will be distributed regionally for two-year terms. There are two seats reserved for Africa, with Chad, Gambia, and Nigeria in the running. With no contenders, the seats for Asia-Pacific, Eastern Europe, and Latin America and the Caribbean will go to, respectively, Saudi Arabia, Lithuania, and Chile. The two former states have never served on the Security Council.

      • October 18: Security Council Debate on Women, Peace and Security, New York
        This year, the Council’s annual debate follows a new resolution on women, peace, and security passed in June, which focused on sexual violence in conflict. The Secretary-General’s most recent report on women, peace, and security noted that though there has been increased attention to sexual violence against women during conflict, the number of leadership roles for women in peace and security implementation remains low. Thus, while the open debate will center on the rule of law and justice as they relate to women, there is also likely to be a focus on women’s participation. Special recommendations from the Secretary-General’s annual report could lead a presidential statement or to another resolution, according to the Security Council’s monthly forecast.   

      • October 28: Security Council Meeting on the UN and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation 
        This Security Council briefing focused on how to strengthen the partnership between the United Nations and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation is the first of its kind. The UN Secretary-General as well as the Secretary-General of the OIC will brief the Council on general cooperation as well as areas of common interest such as conflict prevention and counter-terrorism. A Presidential Statement is a likely outcome.   



Ice is Breaking Rapidly Between Iran and US: Interview with Gary Sick

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“We are moving very rapidly from a situation in which American diplomats had to leave the room when Iranians came in because they were afraid that they might be forced into contact, to a point where in fact they look forward to seeing each other and comparing notes…And it actually changes everything,” said Professor Gary Sick, an Iran scholar at Columbia University and a former staff member of the US National Security Council focusing on Iranian affairs. 

Professor Sick said Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has the political capital at home to move his agenda forward, and showed no signs of being nervous or hiding anything. On Friday, Rouhani's Twitter feed described his historic phone call with US President Barack Obama.

“He [Rouhani] has broken every single one of the limits that have existed in the past. We had direct contacts between senior American officials and Iranian officials, not just the secretary of state, but actually a number of his subordinates talked to a number of Iranian subordinates. There were serious negotiations. The Iranians sat in on a meeting of the P5+1 at the ministerial level, which is unprecedented. The position that they took in that meeting was also unprecedented in terms of proposing a negotiated settlement that was, at least for Secretary Kerry, enough to believe that it was worth pursuing.”

“[Rouhani] has been the personal representative of the Supreme Leader in their National Security Council for twenty-five years, and he has participated in every major strategic and security decision that Iran has made in the last quarter century. He is obviously trusted and respected by the Supreme Leader.”

Professor Sick said that the US and Iran have strong points of agreement over Syria, and that could help forge their relationship. However, allies of the US and members of the US Congress may not react positively.

“There's going to be a huge amount of diplomatic fallout from this,” said Professor Sick. “I will be very interested to see how the Saudis, for instance, react to this. The Israelis obviously are going to find this really difficult to deal with. And there are many other players; there are going to be constituencies in this country, the Congress is probably going to be very reluctant to go along with this.”

Nonetheless, the conversation between the two presidents last week and their indications that a negotiated settlement of the nuclear issue is possible is “about as good as anybody could have hoped for,” according to Professor Sick. It's clear that the Iranians want a negotiated settlement within a year, Sick said. “They would like to get it done within six months, or even three months if possible. Nobody that I know believes that it can be done that quickly. On the other hand, when the ice starts breaking, it sometimes surprises you how fast things can [go], if in fact the political will exists on both sides.”

“He's a very serious fellow,” Professor Sick said of Rouhani. “He is not a grandstander, he isn't like Ahmadinejad was: simply looking for publicity at all costs without really caring what damage he did.”

The interview was conducted by Marie O’Reilly, associate editor at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Transcript

Marie O'Reilly: I'm here today with Professor Gary Sick, senior research scholar at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. Thank you so much for speaking with us today, Professor Sick. 

Gary Sick: My pleasure. 

MOR: President Obama and President Rouhani spoke on the phone Friday, the first direct talks between US and Iranian presidents since 1979. What is the significance of this for the relationship between the two countries?

GS: Well, I think for one thing, it puts the lack of handshake [during the UN General Assembly] in a different kind of perspective. That basically the two sides had an opportunity yesterday to have a serious discussion between foreign ministers who spoke without note takers, privately between the two of them, for thirty minutes. 

Both of them sounded very upbeat at the end of those conversations. It was very clear that the conversation had been productive, and it is now clear that President Obama, who took the initiative to call President Rouhani on his way to the airport, also saw it as a positive sign. And he says unequivocally in his report on the conversation that both leaders believe that it is possible to arrive at a negotiated settlement to the nuclear issue. 

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What to Watch in 2014

Key Global Events in February
A list of key upcoming meetings and events with implications for global affairs.

2013-multilateral-602014 Top 10 Issues to Watch in Peace & Security: The Global Arena
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