Amb. ‘Abdallah al-Ashtal is Yemen’s representative to the United Nations. He served as ambassador for the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen from 1971 until May 1990, when he became the representative of the newly unified Republic of Yemen. In March and December 1990, he chaired the UN Security Council. James Paul interviewed him in New York City on December 26, 1990.
How would you assess the role of the United Nations in the Gulf crisis?
Even before the crisis, the UN had begun to work differently. One could sense a spirit of accommodation between the superpowers. The Security Council was no longer a forum for rhetoric but a place to lay out possibilities and try to come to a common position.
In this environment, the crisis met with a more or less united position in the Security Council. It was a test of how the United Nations will act in a crisis in which important principles of the United Nations — sovereignty, territorial integrity, respect for independence — are involved.
From the very first day, the Security Council acted with dispatch and great seriousness. I have never before seen a crisis in which the Security Council took a decisive decision in the first 24 hours: condemning the invasion and requesting the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Usually the Council starts with a resolution to stop firing until a political solution is worked out.
But the military deployment to enforce the UN resolutions was not a UN action. How does this affect the United Nations role?
I was referring to the initial, and most important, resolution, 660, which laid out the framework for a solution: complete withdrawal, and negotiations between Iraq and Kuwait with the help of the Arab League.
What happened afterward is a different story. The multilateral actions of the United Nations in this crisis have been very careful, but the unilateral actions very much exceeded the parameters of the multilateral positions.
The UN imposed sanctions, but those states with military forces in the region are enforcing those sanctions as they wish, trying to claim legitimacy as forces implementing the resolutions of the Security Council.
Was there ever any talk of sending UN forces?
Every time the use of force was discussed, a number of delegations, including China and at the beginning the Soviet Union, wanted the Security Council to act — under Article 42 of the UN Charter, which says that the UN can send forces but only under the command of the United Nations Military Commission. This was not done. The resolution which was taken — to use all means to make Iraq comply with Council resolutions — is vague and open to interpretation. Some people say it is based on Article 41-and-a-half, because 41 talks about sanctions and 42 allows the use of military force. It’s just a blanket authorization, and is one of the most dangerous resolutions that the UN Security Council has adopted in its history.
There have been reports that considerable pressure was brought to bear on member states to vote for particular resolutions.
Of course there were all kinds of pressures. Many countries, I should say, voted in the way they wanted, but Secretary Baker visited all 14 foreign ministers of the states seated in the Security Council. It was inconceivable that some members of the Security Council would vote for a resolution to use force which was not based on an article of the UN Charter, and by troops which were not under the command of the Security Council. So there was a lot of pressure, which some of us felt directly.
I read the piece by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times, which quoted a US official as saying that Yemen’s vote against the resolution authorizing the use of force would be “the most expensive vote you’ll ever take,” referring to scheduled US aid.
There were all kinds of pressures and inducements. Take Ethiopia, whose relationship with the US was not that good. Suddenly, the relationship improved greatly. So it was with other countries.
What role can the UN play now to diminish the possibilities of war?
The problem is that diplomacy was not given enough of a chance from the beginning. The Arab League meeting in Cairo [on August 10, 1990] had only one aim: to legitimize the presence of foreign forces. Even at this late date, if the US were to encourage diplomacy on the regional level, it would elicit a lot of initiatives and proposals. At one point Prince Sultan, the Saudi defense minister, suggested a swap of territory between Iraq and Kuwait. Something like that happened between Saudi Arabia and Jordan in the 1950s. Our delegation tried many times to introduce a resolution which would request the secretary-general to use his good offices, and encourage a political solution based on regional suggestions, but we did not succeed.
Who was opposed to the secretary-general’s involvement?
The US and the United Kingdom, mainly. France was a little bit removed from it. The diplomatic activity of the UN was impeded from the very beginning. And the diplomatic activity outside the UN was unfortunately too open and too undiplomatic: There were too many deadlines. Rhetoric was so confrontational that sometimes it just neutralized diplomatic moves.
Why wouldn’t the US want the secretary-general to be involved?
I would have thought that it was in the best interests of the Security Council, and of the United States, to have the UN do the job, especially since the US has so much clout in the UN. In order to do that, of course, the US would have to give in a little bit to others — the Security Council would have a say, the secretary-general would have a say.
Was there ever an Arab solution to this crisis?
Eventually there can only be an Arab solution. We are talking about a part of the world whose map was drawn by colonial powers, an area in which there is one culture, one language, one nation. There are a number of Arab countries, but there is this urge — at least on the level of the masses — to be one people. A solution has to take into account the sensitivities of the people as well as the rulers, and the interests of the different countries and the security requirements of this area. No prescription that comes from outside the region will be enough. There are many issues involved: borders, economies, development. In the Arab world, six countries are among the least developed in the world, and another six are among the richest. This issue is also surfacing.
But surely the notion of an Arab solution implies a joint capability to force a change in the invasion of one country by another.
It is difficult to have an Arab solution without some disentanglement of outside forces. There will come a time when a solution will depend on the desire of the people and the countries in the region. We have to go through stages. First, we have to deescalate this crisis through a peace plan, a framework for what will happen if this crisis is to be resolved politically. Iraq would have to withdraw from Kuwait. Once Iraq accepts that, it must be clear what’s going to happen in the process of withdrawing. A peace plan should say who is going to take over in the interim — an Arab or an international peacekeeping force. Once it withdraws and that is certified by the secretary-general of the UN, then there has to be a phased withdrawal of all forces from the border that separates Iraq and Saudi Arabia. At the same time there has to be a mediation effort on the territorial, financial, legal or other disputes between Iraq and Kuwait. Security arrangements have to be made.
Do you think that there is likely to be any linkage to broader regional issues?
This crisis will have to be dealt with in three stages. First, withdrawal from Kuwait and reestablishment of the status quo ante or whatever the Kuwaiti people want, and then regional security issues. Security arrangements have to involve the larger problems of the Middle East. The military capability of Iraq has to be related to the military capabilities of Israel, Iran, and even Turkey and Syria. Then there is the Palestinian problem. What is reasonable is not to link them directly at this point we might not resolve either of them if we link them too much — but to treat them in a parallel way, right now.
Yemen seems to have paid a very high price in this conflict. A large number of Yemeni workers have been expelled from Saudi Arabia. Would a solution lead to a return of those workers?
From the beginning, Yemen wanted to be neutral in this conflict, but we were never allowed to be. Saudi Arabia saw us as siding with Iraq, although we voted for all the main UN resolutions. Because Yemen is on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, and also has territorial problems with Saudi Arabia, they were very sensitive. The border is not defined. Because of that we paid a very big price. Most of the oil we refine used to come from Iraq and Kuwait. So for all practical purposes our refineries have stopped working. Economic relations with Saudi Arabia were extensive, but they have all stopped. All economic assistance was cut off, and then — the worst thing for us — they asked the Yemenis living in Saudi Arabia to go home. Nine hundred thousand of them came back.
I don’t think that we want them to go back to Saudi Arabia. We’re going to have to reformulate our priorities and make use of the resources we have in a better way. Yemen is an agricultural country with a lot of potential. It also has oil now — not much, but some. So there’s a lot we can do without depending on oil money from Saudi Arabia or other countries.
Do you see the UN coming out of this crisis in a stronger position?
That will depend on the kind of solution. The clearest effort of the UN was the sanctions. The sanctions imposed on Iraq have no parallel in recent history — nothing comes in, nothing goes out. Iraq cannot go on forever without withdrawing. But of course it will take some time. If the withdrawal comes through the sanctions and their enforcement and then a peace plan is implemented, the UN — the world — will start a new era. If it is resolved by war, even if the US comes out on top, we will have the preponderance of one or more powers which will undermine the democratic structure of the United Nations. So the solution of this conflict by war will undermine the prospect of an international order that is peaceful and legal.
Perhaps the precedent set by a peaceful settlement could then be applied to other forms of occupation in the region and elsewhere.
Exactly. The precedent will be for the Security Council unanimously to impose sanctions or other measures that are outlined in the Charter.
Only if the permanent members agree.
That’s true, but in the past sanctions were not really used. On South Africa they covered only oil and weapons, and were not enforced. What we have here is sanctions that are enforceable, sweeping, and that will work. Iraq is being penalized right now. They cannot sell their oil; they’re losing $100 million a day. This sweeping sanctions regime can force Iraq to withdraw. Recourse to war means that we are using the UN as a cover-up to promote the interests of one country.