UN and Islamic Uprisings in MENA

Monday, June 6, 2011

Behzad Khoshandam
PhD Student in International Relations

The United Nations has not taken a coherent and special approach to the current wave of Islamic uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. The UN’s approach to Islamic uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, which started in Tunisia and soon swept through Egypt, Libya, Yemen Bahrain and other regional countries shows that at the beginning of uprisings, the UN’s approach has not been consistent. In later stages following the second half of May 2011, its approach has not been conformant to the Organization’s nature and goals.

A correct understanding of the UN’s reaction to freedom seeking movements in the region could be achieved by analyzing performance of its main bodies such as the Security Council, General Assembly and the Secretary-general.

The Security Council’s performance, which according to the Charter of the United Nations is responsible for protecting international peace and security, should be analyzed on the basis of the seventh chapter of the Charter of the United Nations (articles 39 to 51).

The Council has been inactive during the developments in Tunisia, perhaps, as a result of rapid pace of those developments which led to deposal of the former Tunisian president, Bin Ali.

As to Egypt, the Security Council has been following no special approach despite the fact that the Egyptian regime was very important to regional interests of big powers, including the United States. Perhaps, rapid fall of the Egyptian dictator was again the reason why major international players, including the Security Council, did not play a decisive part.

On the other hand, the Security Council has taken a special approach to Libya and the issue of Libya has been put on its special agenda. The main reason why the Security Council was so active in Libya was the country’s oil reserves as well as its geopolitical position and role in influence equations of big international powers. The Security Council approved resolutions 1970 and 1973 to enforce no-fly zone over Libya, condemn Kaddafi for crimes against humanity, and sanction NATO operations there in line with responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine.

Although the Security Council has shown rapid reaction to developments in Libya, its reaction to uprisings in Bahrain has been slugging and not compatible with the Security Council’s duties up to the middle of May 2011. Despite many countries like Iran asked the Security Council to be more active in Bahrain’s developments, the Council has thus far avoided of playing such an active part to put an end to massacre of Bahraini Shias.

Yemen, as another country witnessing freedom seeking developments, has not received due attention from the Security Council and other international bodies and some experts have attributed this to unimportant geopolitical and geostrategic situation of the country.

Syria, on the other hand, has elicited cautious reactions from the Security Council as it is one of the countries forming the “axis of resistance.” Syria’s sensitive geopolitical and strategic importance to power structure in the Middle East and North Africa has been the main reason behind that cautious reaction. An effort to issue a statement by the Security Council was made in April 2011 to condemn the Syrian government’s treatment of protestors, but the effort was finally botched. Apart from that effort, the Security Council has played no other special role in Syria up to the middle of May 2011.

The General Assembly, as common conscience of humanity and a global parliament, has also failed to play a special role in the ongoing Islamic uprisings of the Middle East and North Africa. The General Assembly’s reaction to the aforesaid uprisings indicates its secondary role to the Security Council in the Middle East and North Africa.

The General Assembly has been apathetic toward Tunisia and Egypt, but was somehow active in Libya and example of which was suspending membership of Libya in the Human Rights Council.

The General Assembly has also been indifferent to developments in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria though international community expects it to show a better reaction to freedom seeking movements in North Africa and the Middle East in its forthcoming meeting in September 2011.

The world public opinion also expected the Secretary-general as the highest ranking UN official to coordinate various organs of the United Nations in relation to developments in North Africa and the Middle East. The Secretary-General’s reaction, however, has been low profile. In Tunisia, for example, he just called for both sides to find a negotiated and peaceful solution to the crisis.

The Secretary-General took several stances on Egypt, especially in Lima Conference on February 16, 2011, where he mentioned “shortage of democracy” as the main reason behind the fall of Mubarak.

As for Libya, his actions have been in line with those of big international powers. Appointing Abdullah Khatib as his special representative in Libya was one of his most striking measures.

Following NATO air raids on Tripoli, the angry Libyan people attacked the buildings of the United Nations and some embassies in the country. Although the Libyan government apologized for the incident, the United Nations took foreign staff out of Libya.

It should be noted that the Secretary-General has shown no special activity as to developments in Yemen when compared to Egypt.

The Secretary-General has condemned deployment of the Syrian army for the suppression of street protestors and has called for independent investigations into massacre of demonstrators. Although consultations between Ban Ki-Moon and the Syrian president led to inflow of humanitarian aid to Dar’a in May 2011, the Secretary-General has condemned violence against demonstrators on several occasions, including on May 4, 2011.

In addition to the main bodies of the United Nations, other UN organs have been doing their part among which the role of the Human Rights Council has been more prominent.

The Human Rights Council has appointed an International Commission of Inquiry to see into human rights breaches in Tunisia. Although the Council does not have an acceptable track records in Egypt, it has been more active in the case of Libya.

In its extraordinary meeting in February 2011, the Human Rights Council approved a proposal for suspension of Libya’s membership and the proposal was also taken up on the floor of the General Assembly. On the other hand, a three-member investigation team arrived in Tripoli on April 27, 2011, to investigate charges of human rights violations in Libya. The results of the investigations will be made public by June 2011.

The Human Rights Council’s reaction to developments in Bahrain has been fluctuating. At the beginning of clashes in Bahrain, the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement on the situation in Bahrain.

The Human Rights Council’s role in Yemen has been insignificant. Although violation of human rights has been condemned by some UN experts, the Council has taken a special approach to Syria. Developments in Syria and international pressures made the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to cancel a request for his country’s accession to the Human Rights Council in May 2011. The Council also discussed human rights violations in Syria on April 29, 2011 and called for more investigation into those violations.

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has been doing its part in the Middle East developments. In April 2011, FAO announced that it has sent flour and biscuits for 50,000 people to Libya via Tunisia. Relief operations conducted by International Organization for Migration (IOM) and International Maritime Organization (IMO) have been other instances of the United Nations’ efforts in relation to freedom seeking developments in the region.


The following issues should be taken into account when analyzing the United Nations’ approach to freedom seeking developments in the Middle East and North Africa.

1. Taking unprecedented measures and procedures: Reactions shown by the United Nations to developments in the Middle East and North Africa have not been meaningfully different from its past reactions to other freedom seeking movements. However, its reaction to Libya, especially adoption of the Security Council resolutions marks the beginning of a new trend in international politics.

2. UN is dominated by big powers: Since its inception, there has been much debate about domination of big powers over the United Nations. Reactions shown by the UN to recent developments in the Middle East and North Africa also show that this international body is heavily influenced by such international powers as the United States and Britain. Although big powers have followed different policies on developments in the Middle East and North Africa, their performance in the United Nations has been function of the concert of powers ( which means to realize maximum degree of big powers’ interests in the relevant countries.

3. Security Council’s prejudiced approach to regional developments: Analysis of the Security Council’s approach to the aforesaid developments shows that it has taken a different approach to every case. There has been meaningful difference between the UN and the Security Council’s reaction to developments in Libya and Syria in comparison to the UN’s reaction to freedom movements in Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen.

4. Organic connection between the UN and other international bodies: During developments in the Middle East and North Africa, the United Nations has been trying to be in contact with other international organizations in order to sway more influence on those developments. Similarity between stances taken by NATO, (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab League, the African Union, the European Union and other international organizations and those of the United Nations is quite remarkable. European arms embargo against Libya and Syria has been in line with the objectives of the United Nations.


During the past 60 years, the United Nations has been the most important body protecting international peace and security. The organization’s reactions to freedom seeking developments in the Middle East and North Africa during early months of the 2011 have been marked with incoherence, partiality, prejudice, and many ups and downs.

Analysis of types and dimensions of UN’s reactions to freedom seeking movements in the Middle East and North Africa proves that the Security Council has been the most influential organ playing a part. The most important measure taken by the Security Council has been the adoption of resolutions 1970 and 1973 in the case of Libya.

The role of the Security Council in developments of the Middle East and North Africa has influenced direction, outcome, type of players, and legitimacy of freedom seeking movements in those regions. In some cases it has given more speed to freedom seeking developments (such as Libya) or slowed them down (as in Bahrain and Yemen). In other cases (mostly Tunisia and Egypt) it has been largely ineffective.

Different organs of the United Nations have taken inconsistent approaches to recent developments in the Middle East and North Africa. The General Assembly and Secretary-General’s actions have been limited to taking common positions. The Secretary-General, however, has condemned recourse to violence in all Middle Eastern and North African countries where uprisings have been raging.

In conclusion, it is clear that the United Nations’ approach to uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa has been more a function of the big powers’ interests and goals rather than its inherent mission to protect human rights and human security.