At great personal risk to himself and his family, Libya's deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Ibrahim Dabbashi, pushed the UN Security Council to take up the violence in his home country. Dabbashi said he could no longer support the regime of his boss Moammar Gadhafi and stepped out to condemn what he called "a genocide". The dramatic event prompted the first UN meeting of the 15 member Security Council on the uprisings sweeping across the region since the beginning of Tunisia's revolution, Egypt's violence and the developing protests in Bahrain, Yemen, Palestine and Iran.
The United States was represented by Foreign Service officer and Ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo. The Obama administration's appointed ambassador, Susan Rice, skipped the Libya meeting and instead flew to South Africa to attend a UN panel discussion on global sustainability.
Missing the only Security Council meeting on the Middle East revolution was not Rice's first absence from high profile UN business. Rice was absent when the UN held an emergency Security Council meeting on Israel's raid of a ship headed to Gaza and when Iran was elected to the UN Women's Commission. Rice also failed to speak out when Libya was elected to the UN Human Rights Council in May 2010.
While Rice was traveling to South Africa, the State Department ordered Embassy family members, non-essential personnel and other Americans out of Libya. The evacuation of roughly 600 Americans is being done via ferry from Libya to the small island of Malta. The urgent evacuation coincided with more violence and bloodshed and emphasized the seriousness of the developing situation. Human Rights Watch reported that at least 230 people have been killed in the fighting while Italy's government puts the number at 1,000.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the bloodshed "completely unacceptable" and said that the U.S. will take "appropriate steps" to deal with the escalating situation. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-MA, called for strong action by the United Nations Security Council. "While it's true that America has less influence in Tripoli than elsewhere in the region, we're not without options, particularly in partnership with the broader international community," Kerry said. Secretary Clinton also called for the U.S. "to work in concert with the international community." But the directives from Kerry and Clinton were ignored by the U.S. ambassador to the UN who failed to attend the meeting and rally the world body.
Rice's prioritization of the global sustainability meeting over the Libyan crisis sent a terrible signal to American allies at the UN. Rice's absence was not lost on foreign ambassadors and highlighted the inconsistencies of the Obama administration's handling of the Middle East crises. One Arab diplomat told me, "Egypt's violence could hardly be compared to Tripoli's but the (administration's) reaction was much harsher. We aren't sure what Washington is thinking. Ambassador DiCarlo was very strong but more needs to be done."
Rice's interest in South Africa was highlighted in a WikiLeak-produced cable from November 3, 2009. U.S. ambassador to South Africa Donald Gips mentioned Rice's interest in hosting an event with South Africa during his first courtesy call meeting with Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane in Pretoria. Ambassador Gips noted that "US UN Ambassador Susan Rice would like to host the Minister for an event when she next visits New York." Now Rice can deliver the message in person. State Department sources tell me she will have a courtesy call with Minister Mashabane while in town for the global sustainability discussion.
Rice will also speak to the international Chamber of Commerce before heading home to Washington. Rice's spokesman said the ambassador will use her travels as an opportunity to ask South African business and civic leaders to serve as an example by speaking out when they see oppression and brutality. But Rice would be more effective at this time asking South Africa to facilitate such actions back home and staying in New York to push the UN to take the strongest stands possible.
Meantime, the UN's Human Rights Council in Geneva, where Libya is a member, today struggled to issue a condemnation on the Libya violence. The draft HRC statement is being watered down by Cuba, Russia and China and may not even pass. If Susan Rice felt the need to travel, she should have flown to Geneva to lobby the UN Human Rights Council not to South Africa to speak on a panel discussion about global sustainability.
The escalating violence in Libya and throughout the region has also spiked oil prices for Americans and given the crisis a blatant U.S. economic angle. Daniel O'Connell, vice president of energy at MF Global, said if gas prices continue to accelerate ahead of May, when "driving season" picks up, "it will cripple the economy." Rice's absence from the UN meeting neglects not only an events-changing revolution and unspeakable violence, but also an issue that will impact Americans' pocketbooks. She belongs in New York, not South Africa.