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Russia and China ignore Arab League and the West, veto UN resolution on Syrian government

Today, the UN resolution on the events in Syria proposed by the Arab League and backed by the USA, France, the UK and other states was vetoed by China and Russia (whose permanent roles on the Security Council give them great clout). Its not entirely unprecedented, but its definitely highlighted a number of tensions on how the world can react to what's happening in Syria.

President El-Assad's regime represents a number of different issues, and Syria is a very divided state with a number of different ethnic, religious and political groups with their own agendas. Assad's regime is largely dominated by his own tribal grouping, and who would replace him and what would happen over the long term is very uncertain - Assad's Baathist secular government is very much at odds with Islamist groups, but we shouldn't necessarily listen to the rhetoric that if El-Assad went it would lead to such a form of government.

In terms of international reactions, the news that the Syrian government's actions have just led to the deaths of at least 55 in the city of Homs has brought the matter to international attention again. However, while the British Foreign Secretary William Hague has said that the veto "lets the Syrian people down", China dismissed the idea (cynics might like to point out that China itself is hardly averse to using military power to put down protests).

The terms of the proposed resolution were actually pretty weak and generally toothless (and its highly unlikely any group like NATO would be willing to go for military intervention, following recent wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya). As in so much of international affairs and diplomacy, all is about positioning and larger moves.

Meanwhile, closer to the ground and away from the rarified air of the United Nations Security Council, the ordinary people of Syria are suffering as their country lurches toward civil war. Would the resolution have made any difference to their situation if it passed?


Mladic refuses to enter plea at War Crimes trial

Ratko Mladic, the Serbian Former General, refused to enter a plea at the international war crimes trial in The Hague this afternoon. He faces charges related to the Bosnian war from 1992-5, particularly allegations of genocide and mass-murder following events such as the massacre of 8,000 civilians in Srebrenica in 1995.

In a conflict that gave us the horrendous euphemism of "ethnic cleansing" (a phrase that overly sanitises a multitude of evils), Mladic is accused of one of the worst attrocities as part of a larger ideal of removing Bosnian Muslims from what the perpetrators believed should be Serb-only areas. The Bosnian war still has a power to haunt the minds of Europeans today as a point where the euphoria over the fall of Iron Curtain proved short-lived in the face of political turmoil and old hatreds burning what had once been Yugoslavia.

Growing up in the UK, the events in the Bosnian conflict took place when I was a child and the faces of Ratko Mladic, and others such as Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic, appeared like far distant boogeymen. Seeing the now apparently frail old man in The Hague today (far from the swaggering military man of the past) put a human face on the tragedy that I had not expected; that the man alleged to have orchestrated such terror was not some fairytale monster but a man of flesh and blood. However, this humanity does not excuse Mladic but rather serves as a warning that we must be active to prevent such horrors in the future as well as the importance of ensuring that justice be carried out.


Life after Mubarak - what does the future hold for Egypt?

At my local train station on my way to work each morning, a large poster greets me advertising holiday in Egypt. Promoting the ancient town of Luxor it boasts "Egypt ... where it all begins". While this current set of revolutions across the Middle East began in Tunisia, it is in the most populous Arab nation that the future of the region will be set.

Like everyone else, I've been watching the ongoing events in Egypt with a mixture of wonder and uncertainty; to see a genuine people's uprising/revolution (delete where appropriate) rock the middle east and topple a long-standing "strong man" has been genuinely awe-inspiring. The fear comes from that uncertain future that now beckons for Egypt, one full of great opportunity and hope but also a series of concerns.

Hosni Mubarak made a disastrous fumble last week when he made a big speech and then essentially said very little (other than repeating the ill-judged idea that he could somehow cling on to power until September), and ultimately failed to inspire confidence from the protestors in the street or those in the military who truly held the power behind his throne. A true revolution, sparked following the self-imolation of a young man who had lost any hope for the pursuit of his own happiness, saw the end of Mubarak's 30 year rule in an uprising after only 18 days (and one day after he'd announced earlier he would stay on until September).

Mubarak had long held himself as a war hero, particularly from his military exploits against Israel in the 70s, though he is also noted for having ensured modern peace between Egypt and Israel as well as holding a powerbase that had ensured some stability in the region. However, his long financial support from the Americans ensured that the USA was wrong-footed when it came to an uprising demanding an end to autocracy and for a new democratic future in Egypt. Obama's administration visibly stumbled in the early days of the uprising making vague statements about ensuring a smooth transition but unwilling to completely drop the man that they had long supported. The old notion of "he's a bastard, but he's our bastard" once seemed to be the overriding position, but this is now being replaced with encouraging noises about freedom and democracy.

For a long period, I had assumed that Mubarak would hold onto power using any number of ruthless tricks and so the announcement of his resignation on Friday was one that was met with a mixture of relief, surprise and unbelief; could he really be going? The Egyptian Military has largely played its cards right in this affair with many younger soldiers actively supporting the uprising, and the annoucement today of broad consultation on a new constitution and free elections in six months has been reassuring.

However, the future of the new Egypt rests with both the military and the protestors. While we have seen essentially a military coup the initial appearance is that of a holding period before a more representative government is formed. The protestors themselves form a wide base of the local demographics, crossing age and religious groupings; one of the moving images from last Sunday was when the Christian minority held a mass in Tahrir square (now the centre of this revolution) and were protected by the other protestors including both Muslim and Secular supporters.

One of the most powerful groups within the protestors is the Muslim Brotherhood, a group with a long complicated and controversial history that had been banned under Mubarak's regime. An Islamist group with political goals and methods, they have declared that they would not stand a presidential candidate in the elections announced for later this year, but for many in other parts of the region there is a fear of another 1979 Iranian revolution. They will be an important element for the future of Egypt, but they must also be keenly aware that the military will be watching to intervene if their interests are undermined.

In terms of this year's revolutions, Egypt may not be where it all began but it will have an important impact on the future of the region.