Conflict update: March 14 2017


According to Foreign Policy, nominal Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent a letter recently to a group of nonprofits warning that the Trump administration is prepared to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council unless “considerable reform” is undertaken in that body. Tillerson’s letter highlighted the presence on the UNHRC of such human rights luminaries as Saudi Arabia and China (and, uh, the United States, while we’re at it), but that’s all smokescreen. By “reform,” what the Trump administration–and, indeed, much of the US foreign policy community–means is “lay off Israel.”

While I take a backseat to nobody in my loathing of Israel’s human rights record, which deserves all the criticism it gets, these folks do have a point about the UNHRC–or, rather, they have part of a point. Something like half of the resolutions issued by the UNHRC since it was formed in 2006, and nearly a third of its special sessions over that time, have had to do with Israel. As shitty as Israel’s human rights record is, that’s disproportionate. Of course, the Trump/Republican solution to this problem is, essentially, that the UNHRC should cease to exist, or at least be less active with regards to Israel. My solution would be for the UNHRC to be at least as active on Israel as it is now, but also be way more active when it comes to, well, everybody else (no government in the world actually cares about human rights, is the real problem here).

But while the Trump administration’s instinct is to withdraw from any international body that doesn’t toe the line, denying them that all-important TRUMP Brand stamp of approval or whatever, if their aim is to steer the UNHRC in a different direction then quitting is exactly the wrong way to do so. The Obama administration, being thoroughly a creature of the Washington foreign policy establishment despite its occasional tepid criticisms of that establishment, also objected to the HRC’s overemphasis on Israel, so it joined the council (the Bush administration refused to be part of it) and, lo and behold, was able to use America’s international heft to push the council to focus attention on Syria, Iran, and nonstate actors like ISIS. If the Trump administration follows through on its threat to withdraw from the council, then it will be giving up its ability to influence what the council does.

I’m torn in cases like this between my instinct, which is that the administration doesn’t think through the ramifications of these kinds of decisions and/or doesn’t really give a shit about them, and my skepticism, which tells me that they must surely realize what they’re doing and are acting purposefully to try to wreck as many international institutions as they can. Of course there’s no reason it couldn’t be both–no presidential administration is a monolith.


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Too many Lamas

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th and current Dalai Lama, is 81 years old. Even for somebody living well, as he seems to be, that’s a long time to be alive, and when any major religious or political figure makes it into old age it’s natural to talk about succession. But the question of whether there will even be a 15th Dalai Lama, and who will identify him or her (it hasn’t happened yet, but it could) if there is, has all the makings of a major international incident.


The current Dalai Lama with Barack Obama–hey, that rhymes–in 2014 (Wikimedia | White House)

Presumably we all know the basics about the Dalai Lama, but let’s review a couple of things. The Dalai Lama is the preeminent figure in the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism and is considered to be a reincarnation (well, successive reincarnations) of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokiteśvara. Owing in large part to a political alliance with the Mongols, the Gelug school starting in the 16th century began to gain political control over Tibet, and starting in the 1640s the 5th Dalai Lama came to rule Tibet. That state of affairs continued (though, to be clear, Tibet existed for most of this time as an autonomous region under some larger power’s protection–like the Mongols, the Chinese Qing Dynasty, Britain) until the People’s Republic of China, fresh off of winning the Chinese Civil War, outright annexed Tibet in 1950. The current Dalai Lama took office in 1950, under Chinese control, but fled to India in 1959 and has been the leading figure in the Tibetan independence movement ever since.

Because each successive Dalai Lama is considered the reincarnation of Avalokiteśvara, succession is always a bit complicated. It’s not as though a sitting Dalai Lama can appoint a successor, because his/her rightful successor technically can’t even be born until the current Dalai Lama passes. Then you have to identify the new incarnation, which is a process that involves a lot of meditation, visions, and then testing the candidate(s). One of the final tests involves earning the recognition of the second most-important figure in the Gelug school, the Panchen Lama, and this is where things are pretty dicey at the moment. The Panchen Lama (we’re currently on the 11th) is believed to be the reincarnation of another bodhisattva, named Amitābha, and his recognition (as in he must “recognize” that the candidate is actually the new incarnation of Avalokiteśvara) is necessary for a new Dalai Lama to be named. This also works in the other direction–the sitting Dalai Lama must recognize a new Panchen Lama–or, well, it’s supposed to work that way.

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