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Towering Infernos – The Kuwait Oil Fires

A 2010 Time Magazine article rated it as the third worst environmental catastrophe in history, right behind Chernobyl and Bhopal. As Operation Desert Storm drew to a close, with Kuwait liberated and the Iraqi Army all but destroyed, Saddam Hussein would not concede defeat. Like a cornered rat, he inflicted one more blow on Kuwait’s ecology and its oil production infrastructure, something he hoped would take years to recover from. So he ordered his men to blow up Kuwait’s oil wells. Some 700 were set on fire, unleashing a 20th Century Black Death.

Trying to extinguish the fires was a near impossibility at first. It was too dangerous to send in firefighting crews during the war and later it was discovered that land mines had been placed in the areas around the wells, meaning they had to be removed before the fires could be put out. Read more

The Fight for Non-Proliferation Begins at Home

The development and potential use of nuclear weapons defined the Cold War era and kept the world under the shadow of Mutually Assured Destruction. A major step towards dispelling that threat came with the 1970 ratification of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which is predicated on the three pillars of non-proliferation, disarmament, and the right to the peaceful use of nuclear technology.

Even though the treaty was originally conceived with a limited duration of 25 years, the signing parties decided, by consensus, to extend the treaty indefinitely and without conditions during the Review Conference (REVCON) in New York City on May 11, 1995, culminating successful lobbying efforts led by Ambassador Thomas Graham Jr., who often was outnumbered in the discussions within the U.S. government on the issue. Read more

Getting Kosovo Right: Working to Avoid Another Bosnia

Yugoslavia had long been a simmering caldron of ethnic and nationalist tensions. After the death of Yugoslav strongman Josip Broz Tito, the thin ties keeping the country together began to fray. Kosovo Albanians demanded that their autonomous province be upgraded to a constituent republic. Serbs in turn saw the high autonomy of the provinces and the weakness at the federal level as inimical to Serbian interests.

Slobodan Milošević came to power in Serbia in 1987 and was able to gain de facto control over Kosovo. In 1990 separatist parties won victories in Yugoslavia’s first multi-party elections and in 1991-92, Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina proclaimed independence. After a string of inter-ethnic incidents, the Yugoslav Wars ensued, first in Croatia and then, most severely, in multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Photo: Reuters) Read more

Iraqi Kurds, Operation Provide Comfort, and the Birth of Iraq’s Opposition

In the aftermath of Iraq’s crushing defeat during Operation Desert Storm in February 1991, protesters and rebels in the northern and southern parts of Iraq took advantage of what they saw as weakness in Saddam Hussein’s regime and attempted to overthrow his government. Anticipating American military support, their rebellion failed in the face of Iraqi army helicopters and tanks as the United States was too slow to react and provide assistance to the rebels. As Saddam Hussein’s forces retaliated against the rebels, hundreds of thousands of people in the north and south fled. In the south, the Shia refugees found haven across the border in Saudi Arabia and were able to take shelter in refugee camps.

However, in the north, Kurdish refugees were not as fortunate, as the Turkish government refused to allow them to enter Turkey in fear of adding to the already restless Turkish Kurdish population. Read more

Winning the Peace – USAID and the Demobilization of the Nicaraguan Contras

In the 1980s, one of the focal points of U.S. foreign policy was the rise of leftist militants throughout the globe, particularly in Central America. Under the Reagan Doctrine, the U.S. in 1982 began actively supporting anti-Communist insurgents — the Contras — in Nicaragua in their fight against the Sandinistas. By 1985, public support for the Contras had waned after reports surfaced that the Contras had trafficked in cocaine and used “death squads.”

After Congress prohibited aid to the Contras, the Reagan Administration, under Lt. Col. Oliver North, began funding them illegally, in what would be known as the Iran-Contra Affair. After the Contras and Sandinistas agreed to a cease-fire in March 1988, Congress passed a law that put non-lethal Contra aid under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Read more

Negotiating the UNFCCC – Moving to the Endgame

In Part III, Robert Reinstein, the United States’ top negotiator at the United Nations, and Stephanie Kinney, one of the State Department representatives, give a behind-the-scenes look at some of the negotiating tactics and backroom dealing used to draft the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). They discuss the crucial negotiations in Nairobi, which marked the beginning of the endgame, and touch on the flurry of meetings around the globe, many of which were less than productive and resulted only in heated exchanges. Reinstein discusses at length some of the tactics he used in negotiating in a multilateral setting. Read more

Negotiating the UNFCCC – “The Whole World Was Against Us”

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a landmark international climate treaty which entered into force in March 1994, provided the basis for future agreements, including the one reached in Paris in December 2015. 

Robert Reinstein, the United States’ top negotiator at the United Nations, and Stephanie Kinney, one of the State Department representatives, recount the considerable obstacles the U.S. faced in reaching an agreement, including demands by developing countries for an upfront guarantee of money and technology and how they were able to finesse this with well-crafted language — after a high-stakes poker match. They note how then-Senator Al Gore followed the U.S. delegation everywhere and was often critical of its bargaining positions, in part because the U.S. kept to its position of “no on targets, no on money and we’re going to come back to you on technology.” Read more

Negotiating the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

One of the most critical problems facing the world today is the issue of climate change. Scientists have predicted that if drastic measures are not enacted soon, global warming will lead to catastrophic changes in the climate, desertification, and a rise in coastal flooding, which would all but destroy many communities and even small countries located at sea level.

International efforts to address this issue go back more than two decades. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was an international climate treaty finalized at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992, which entered into force in March 1994. The text was initially agreed to by an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee in New York between April and May 1992. The objective of the Convention was to curb and stabilize greenhouse-causing emissions in the atmosphere. Though there were no binding limits on emissions for individual countries and no enforcement mechanism was introduced, the Convention was seen as a key first step in addressing global climate change. Read more

The 1991 Iraq War — The Battle at the UN

As an after-effect of the Iraq-Iran War which raged from 1980 to 1988, Baghdad found itself crippled by debts to neighboring countries, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and felt its debts should be forgiven. It pressured both countries to let it off the hook; the Saudis and Kuwaitis were not interested, however. Iraq, which considered Kuwait to be Iraqi territory, then accused Kuwait of exceeding oil production quotas set by Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) agreements. On August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, seizing complete control of the country in less than 24 hours.

The UN Security Council responded just hours after the invasion and passed UNSC Resolution 660, which condemned the invasion and demanded a total withdrawal of Iraqi forces; Resolution 661 imposed tough sanctions on Iraq. Not surprisingly, the negotiations proved to be quite complicated. Read more

The NPT and the Aftermath of India’s Nuclear Test — May 1974

Operation Smiling Buddha was the assigned code name for India’s first nuclear weapons explosion on May 18th, 1974. India declared that this test was simply a “peaceful nuclear explosion” or PNE, yet it was later discovered that this was actually a part of a nuclear weapons program. The sharp backlash by the international community  stemmed in part from the fact that India was not a member of the UN Security Council.

After the first nuclear bomb was exploded by the United States in 1945, other nations – the USSR, Great Britain, France, and China –- soon followed suit and developed their own nuclear weapons capabilities. These five nuclear powers soon realized the potentially devastating effects of nuclear weapons development and pushed for the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which went into effect in 1970. Read more