Interview: UN Security Council President - Diego Arria

Former UN Security Council President Diego Arria talks to Alex Kung about genocide, Hugo Chavez, terrorism, and the price of inaction.

Diego Arria is a Venezuelan politician, diplomat, former Venezuelan Permanent Representative of Venezuela to the United Nations (1991–1994) and President of the Security Council (1992–93). During his time at the UN he was one of the first to warn of the impending genocide in Bosnia. Over the past decade he has also been a vociferous opponent of Hugo Chavez. As the governor of the Federal District of Caracas in the mid-1970s, he was a close adviser to President Perez. Other positions have included Diplomatic Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Visiting Scholar at Columbia University.

When you were president of the Security Council, you went about creating what became known as the ‘Arria Formula', a way of having briefings done in a more informal setting. What are the advantages of it?

During the war in Yugoslavia, I wanted to make sure that the president of Bosnia would have a chance to meet informally with the members of the Security Council rather than in the bilateral way with the major powers. In the bilaterals, each country could tell him whatever was pleasant for his ears while in an informal consultation in front of all the countries, they have to be honest. That's how it started, since then it has been used extensively. Richard Goldstone, who was the justice of the South African Court when Apartheid was ended, told me that it served him extremely well in his report to end the Apartheid because South Africa realized that he was meeting with the Security Council.

You were involved with the assessment of the Bosnian genocide in Srebrenica even before it happened, and you had termed it a slow-motion genocide. I wondered whether you saw any parallels with other crises, such as the events unfolding in Darfur?

The Balkan conflict was of course prior to Darfur, but the Rwandan genocide was taking place at the same time and the Somalian crisis as well. The most notable element of Bosnia was that it was taking place in Europe. This was not a far-away continent, but two hours away from Paris. In the middle of Europe, where they said "never again", this was happening.

But is the reluctance of the international community to get involved a common trend in such cases?

The international community did not fail when their national interests were at stake. In Kuwait, where oil was an issue, an alliance was formed and 500,000 troops were sent in. In the case of Bosnia or Rwanda this could have been much easier had they wanted to do so, but they felt that their national interests were not at stake even though they were obligated by the charter of the United Nations to do something about it.

Which is the more major obstacle in such international interventions: issues surrounding national sovereignty, or the vested interests of certain members of the Security Council?

I think the latter, rather than the former. There are of course ingredients of the first but fundamentally, the latter one, undoubtedly. For example, China's behaviour in the Security Council is always against embargos, sanctions, human rights, all words that sound terrible to the Chinese representative on the Security Council. I remember the Chinese ambassador looked like he was always sleeping until you mentioned human rights or sanctions, and then he became very lively. In the Security Council one sees national interests coming into play more than international obligations.

At the Oslo Forum this summer, you mentioned that some of the origins of international terrorism against the West were to be found in the Bosnian Crisis and the way the West didn't respond to it adequately. Can you comment on this?

At the time, in 1992-1993, the only two countries on the UN sanctions list were Iraq, rightly so for invading Kuwait, and Libya, rightly so for terrorist attacks which included the Lockerbie case. But when we were having those two Muslim countries punished, the question of the Muslims of Bosnia should have arisen, and their position as victims. When we had a great opportunity to send a strong message to the Muslim community we did nothing. We waited two years, and then we looked the other way; we gave them blankets, medicine, but not protection. Had we done so, the moral position of the West would be much stronger. The situation forced many people to come into Bosnia, and Muslim jihadists came in solidarity because the general feeling was "look, they're killing our Muslim brothers". Europe brought terrorists onto the continent through inaction.

In the context of the Security Council, you also mentioned at this forum that you were working on a book, ‘Room without a view'. Does it present an insider's pessimistic view of the UN?

You know, I have great admiration for the UN. But the United Nations is a global institution, and its best known dimension is the Security Council. It is an extraordinary organization with outstanding people, but I am critical of people who appropriate the United Nations as an excuse for not acting. Every time they do nothing they claim it's the UN's fault, as was clear in the Somalia operation. My book therefore focuses more on the responsibilities of major countries in the Security Council. I am however also critical of the Security Council in general, as well as the leadership of Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

Have things changed under Mr. Kofi Annan and his successor Mr. Ban Ki-Moon?

Kofi is a noble person; I admit have that bias for him. He knew his weaknesses and was aware of his failings, for instance in the subsequent reports on the Srebrenica massacres, in which I was quoted. He did however inspire a lot of people during his tenure. Unfortunately at the end he was brought down by an unfortunate incident which I think was more the fault of major powers rather than the UN itself.

In the light of its original formation with the five Cold War powers as permanent members, how will the Security Council develop in the future taking into consideration the rise of other economic powers in Asia and Latin America?

You know, I don't think the enlargement of the Council by itself would make any difference. There are countries which despite not being permanent members carry great weight, such as Germany and Japan. They are insiders without the title. I don't think adding Brazil or India would add any special dimension to the United Nations.

So you would argue that it is a dynamically evolving construct despite its seemingly ossified hierarchy?

Well the major powers actually like it that way. You want a docile Secretary General, one who won't rock the boat. One other aspect of the balance of power is of course the presence of other organizations like NATO. It's a good thing they circumvented the Security Council otherwise they'd still be haggling over issues like national sovereignty that we've mentioned.

In 2009 in an article entitled ‘Crime and Punishment', you stated that Chavez's retribution is inevitable. Given the examples of Colonel Qaddafi or Kim Jong-Il and their tenures of power, how do you remain an optimist on the idea of international justice?

I was one of the creators of the tribunal for former Yugoslavia and I remember Slobodan Milosevic taking it quite lightly, believing they'd never get hold of him. Nevertheless I warned him that his crimes would one day be accountable. Ten years later, I was a witness against him in the International Court. Now at least dictators know that they can't just go and retire in the south of France; that they must always be wary of the reach of international justice. Of course you have to have a lot of patience sometimes, for instance with President Mugabe, but the opportunity only has to present itself, such as a trip out of the country.

As for Chavez, because he has accumulated so many human rights violations I warned him that he would have more tribunals going after him than general Noriega did, and Noriega had quite a few!

When it comes to Hugo Chavez in particular, is the fact that he has rubbed shoulders with President Ahmadinejad and attempted to create a pseudo anti-western coalition any cause for real concern?

This is a topic that I felt ambivalent about for a long time, thinking it a matter of anti-Chavez prejudice. However lately we have been getting information that there is a formal pact between Iran and Venezuela to develop nuclear facilities, of course under the pretence of peaceful use. The former Attorney-General of New York, prosecutor Morgenthal, indicated Venezuela as an active collaborator, moving funds to Iran through a national bank. Chavez himself has said that an attack on Iran is an attack on Venezuela, which was not in my opinion a smart move.

Do you think that given Mr. Chavez's very personalised dislike of the Bush administration, that there is a trend of the rhetoric being toned down since president Obama was elected?

You know, he needs an enemy, like Fidel Castro who was defined by his fight against the Cuba embargo. Castro himself toned down the rhetoric with President Clinton, just as Chavez has toned it down with Obama. Both would be fighting with shadows if they did not have the Americans to oppose, which is why I believe the process of collapse would actually be accelerated if the United States lifts the embargo.

With regard to the United States, you made the following statement: "It is clear why Barack Obama was elected the new president. Nonetheless, the voters did not elect Obama to have him abandon principles of democracy by joining questionable schemes, like those by Hugo Chavez, which would constitute a real threat to U.S. national interests." Could you clarify what you meant by this?

I meant energy policy, specifically the oil industry. US foreign policy is to be judged by deeds, not by words. The main obstacle to following up on official policy has usually been the oil industry: we now have a situation where they're financing a man who is their worst enemy in Latin America, by buying Venezuelan oil. It is unprecedented.

I understand the land you owned in Venezuela was recently seized by the government. Do you suppose this was politically motivated?

This came immediately after my speech in Oslo, where I said that the sword of justice was bending over Chavez's head. It was all over the papers, and the message was that he was closer to international justice than he could imagine. He therefore proceeded to publicly not only seize but also pillage and ransack my farm.

Do you think that there is a danger of Mr. Chavez being idealized by respected left-wing personalities in the West due to his new brand of ‘Bolivarian' socialism?

That support has mostly collapsed. Chavez's importance was in direct proportion to the price of oil. Now that that has collapsed, his fans are much less enthusiastic. To quote Manuel Barroso, there is not one intellectual outside of Cuba apart from Ignacio Ramonet of ‘Le Monde' who is still praising Chavez. There was a time when people thought that he was a new Robin Hood, but now realise that he's simply a thug surrounded by some of the world's worst fat cats, under the guise of a military regime. He needs international support, which is why he opposed the recent Nobel Peace prize going to the dissident Liu Xiaobo, so that he could retain Chinese support.

Interview & Photo Credit: Alex Kung - First published 9/11/2010

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