Global Governance by Annoyance

Global Governance by Annoyance

Many observers of this year’s United Nations meetings focused on two tests to the organization’s credibility. Most central was whether the Security Council could enact an enforceable roadmap for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. The Syria negotiations dominated news coverage of the , but the potential visit of indicted Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir to the UN was a notable subplot. Key human rights groups warned that a Bashir visit to New York would have been an embarrassment to the organization and a blow to the notion of accountability for grave crimes.

With the annual meetings moving toward their close, what can we say about the outcome of these tests? I’d argue that both suggest a phenomenon that could be termed global governance by annoyance. Last week, the Security Council adopted a resolution requiring Syria to relinquish its weapons and to cooperate with international inspectors. But the Council left quite murky what it would do in the case of noncompliance. In effect, the Council punished the Assad regime by making him reckon with a group of pesky investigators who will likely struggle for weeks and maybe months to secure access and ensure that the regime hands over its stockpile. The unarmed inspectors won’t pose any threat to the regime, but their presence might in certain circumstances complicate its operations. At the very least, they’ll force the regime to think frequently about  how to manage the international presence. 

For its part, the Bashir drama ended without a visit to New York. The precise reason for Bashir’s change of plans are unclear. Maybe he never planned on coming and was using the threat of an awkward appearance as leverage. It’s possible he wasn’t granted a visa in time. Protests at home may have changed his mind. Perhaps he even worried that his plane would be intercepted en route. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that the ICC indictment serves as a continuing impediment to Bashir’s travel and to the enjoyment of the normal perks of being a head-of-state.

Widely perceived has having flouted basic global norms, Assad and Bashir now both find themselves vexed–if not exactly threatened–by international institutions. Through a dark lens, the fact that they are not more directly challenged demonstrates the fecklessness of global governance mechanisms. The Syrian regime hasn’t yet been punished in a meaningful way for its chemical attack and stands free to pursue its campaign against rebel forces; Sudan’s Bashir is still president and still has a mostly free (and bloody) hand within his borders. But the annoyance factor may still be significant, not least for other serving and potential heads of state watching the spectacle.