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25 janvier 2009

'Superman' on a crusade to find justice

Carne Ross doesn't dress in a pants-over-tights combo - not in public, anyway - but there's more than a whiff of the Caped Crusader about the former Foreign Office diplomat.

Since resigning in 2004 (after 15 years), Ross has offered his services to marginalised groups around the globe, helping governments in exile, states seeking independence and divided countries attempting to re-unify. Think Ghostbusters but with a suitcase full of UN resolutions instead of a proton pack.

Ross set up his not-for-profit consultancy Independent Diplomat four years ago. Responsible for Britain's Middle East policy at the UN Security Council from 1998 to 2002, he left the Foreign Office after giving evidence to the Butler inquiry into intelligence on Iraq.
'According to what I'd seen in the many years I'd been reading intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, there was no way it could sustain the claims the government was making,' says Ross speaking in New York, where he's now based.

'Also, I didn't think the war was legal in terms of the UN resolutions - and I felt the government had ignored available alternatives to war, such as a tougher stance on Iraq's illegal oil exports. Blair and Bush claimed that sanctions were falling apart, and this was simply not true.'

On secondment to the UN in Kosovo at the time of his resignation, Ross soon picked up his first client as a freelance diplomat. 'The Kosovan government had to deal with a highly complicated international diplomatic process to determine its final status,' he says.

'They weren't allowed a diplomatic service of their own and yet were required to navigate this obscure process.' After launching Independent Diplomat, Ross advised the Kosovars until independence early last year.

Other clients include a government in Eastern Europe trying to get into the EU; the government of Somaliland (a democratic state in the north of Somalia seeking international recognition); the government in exile of the Burmese opposition; the Polisario front in Western Sahara; and the government of Northern Cyprus which is recognised only by Turkey and is currently going through a UN talks process about re-unification.

Working on a freelance basis has convinced Ross of the need for a cultural shift in diplomacy. 'Many diplomats are operating in a kind of bubble, in real isolation from the problems they're grappling with,' he says. 'I felt that acutely as a British diplomat. Somehow, discussion in the Security Council was bloodless and boring, and yet we were dealing with genocide and invasions, issues of incredible human drama. That always bothered me.'

Bridging the gap

International Diplomat (the first of its kind) is a way of bridging that gap. 'When I was a British diplomat, I always liked to think what a nice guy I was and how helpful I was to the poor benighted people on the other side of the table - whether it was the PLO, the Polisario or the Kosovars - but at the end of the day, I was always working for London. That's what I was paid to do, but it meant that if I was giving them supposedly neutral advice about how to advance their cause, it was always coloured by what was best for us.'

Now, Ross is on the other side of the table. 'I'm not just a Western diplomat patronisingly telling them the way things work; I'm working for them. It's a different world view if you're a liberation movement based in tented refugee camps in the Sahara desert.'

Yet his former experience can be invaluable. 'One of the primary values of what we do is that people will tell us things that they won't tell our clients to their faces. It's just something about human nature, that humans will say what they really think to others rather than directly to people.'

Carne Ross is also pressing for UN reform, after arranging for the Kosovan prime minister to attend a meeting of the UN Security Council (SC) for the first time. 'I noticed that all too often the places we were discussing weren't actually present. I felt that people were getting a raw deal because they weren't properly involved in the diplomatic process about their country.'

New initiative

He's now working on an initiative called the Universal Right of Address. 'It would mean any party to a dispute being discussed by the UNSC would have the right to address the council,' he says. 'It makes obvious, logical sense, and would be easy to implement, but that doesn't mean they'll do it - because the UN is not really about making fair, just and right decisions; it's about status and power.

'For instance, as a big Serbia ally, Russia had major objections to Kosovo attending the meetings. But Russia is now keen to put other non-state actors in front of the SC, such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia, because of events in Georgia. 'Meanwhile, the Americans wanted the Kosovars there because they could support Kosovan independence, but they don't want South Ossetia. China doesn't like anybody. They don't want Tibet or the Xinjiang Province to get the right to speak.'

If Carne Ross is the Caped Crusader, there's one organisation that could lay claim to being an Avengers-style league of superheros. Informally created in 2001, after Peter Gabriel and Richard Branson discussed the need for a gathering of world leaders to tackle seemingly intractable problems, The Elders is a roving team of Nobel Prize-winners and national heroes aiming to spread peace wherever they go.

Powerful line-up

With a line-up including former South African president Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former US President Jimmy Carter, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Burmese human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi, it's based on the traditional model of village elders, who resolve conflicts in their local communities.

Except these conflicts are slightly bigger than the usual stolen goat: in the past year, various Elders have gone on missions to Sudan, Cyprus and the Middle East. A planned visit to Zimbabwe had to be cancelled after they were denied visas by president Robert Mugabe. They insisted they weren't planning to get involved in any political negotiations, though - something they view as an advantage.

At the official launch of the Elders in 2007, Mandela argued they were free from the external pressures typically associated with international bodies. 'The structures we have for dealing with these problems are often tied down by political, economic and geographic constraints,' he said.

And, in a line suggesting he could also see the superhero connection, Mandela added: 'The Elders can become a fiercely independent and positive force for good.' Now they just need a few special powers.

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