The war in Syria has divided public opinion and politicians alike and represents the grisly reality of contemporary warfare in which civilians pay the highest cost. This conflict may represent a textbook example of the kind of crisis that the United Nations (UN) exists to curb, but it has fallen well short of meeting the needs of the Syrian people. This concern has been articulated by many, including the US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, who has stated that “The [Security] Council’s inaction on Syria is a moral and strategic disgrace that history will judge harshly.”
The establishment of the United Nations in 1945 prompted optimism that the days of tyrannical governments, power abusers and human rights violators being able to act unopposed were over. The international community looks to the UN to rule on whether intervention, be that diplomatic or militarily, is warranted and legitimate. The world continues to regard the UN as a force for good and – significantly – as the accepted arbiter of whether or not legitimate force should be used. However, history suggests that the UN – specifically, the UN Security Council (UNSC) – has a poor record in responding to conflicts and gross human rights abuses. Far from being a protector of rights and morals around the world, the UNSC has often neglected to act due to the competing self-interests of its five permanent members (the P5). China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States wield considerable influence and it is their individual political agendas which largely determine UN action or inaction in response to crises such as Syria.
The battle over Syria
Syria’s civil war represents one of the most significant contemporary international conflicts. Over the past three years, debate over whether to intervene militarily in it has been heated. It is ultimately the decision of the P5 to adjudicate on whether any such intervention will be sanctioned by the United Nations.
But the UN continues to prevaricate and Syria’s civilian population continues to pay the price. Current UN estimates puts the death toll at around 100,000, and registered refugees at around 2 million with a further 4 million displaced within Syria itself. Unfortunately, this has not compelled the Security Council to act without prejudice or self-interest, and the threat of the veto has yet again come into effect, stalling decisive international action to the detriment of those living in Syria. Vetoes by Russia and China have blocked resolutions that would have demanded all sides to the conflict to stop fighting, condemned the indiscriminate killing of civilians and violence “in all forms”, threatened sanctions, and supported the Arab League’s proposed Peace Plan.
Following the vetoes of July 2012, New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Murray McClully called for the P5 members to give up their unique veto rights in situations of mass atrocities, stating that “if 25,000 deaths, countless thousand injured and many more thousand displaced and homeless is not enough to get the Security Council to act, then what does it take?” This request to the P5 has also been made by countries such as Costa Rica, Jordan, Singapore, Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
The P5 – a history of prioritising self-interest
Syria is by no means the first time that P5 interests have stalled the UN from directly addressing gross human rights abuses.
As the word watched the Rwandan genocide unfolding in 1994, a ‘hidden’ veto (whereby a P5 member exercises its veto rights by threatening to veto a prospective resolution, thereby making it clear that the resolution, if taken forward, will fail) from both the US and France blocked UN action while also ensuring that the definition of the crisis under international law was weakened. Then head of UN peacekeeping Kofi Annan stated that, “The international community failed Rwanda and that must leave us always with a sense of bitter regret.”
In the early 2000s, the Janjaweed were committing genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, killing hundreds of thousands and displacing over 2 million. In this instance, China played a decisive role in stymieing action. It was at the time the biggest buyer of Sudanese oil and the financier of Sudan’s major pipeline. Sudan was also a major purchaser of Chinese weapons. Beijing therefore protected its interests by protecting Sudan within the UNSC; it threatened a Chinese veto and this proved sufficient to block a resolution that would have aided Darfur during the worst moths of the genocide.
Power by veto
Once brandished around frequently in the Council – particularly so by the USA and Soviet Union during the Cold War – the post-Cold War period world has seen a dramatic decline in the use of the veto in the UNSC, down from almost 200 being cast from 1946 to 1989 to a total of 27 from 1990 to the present day. However, this decline has not been accompanied by a similar demise in behind-the-scenes pressure being exerted upon non-permanent members by the P5, as the latter strive to influence votes on the big international issues.
These machinations rarely, if ever, receive mainstream media attention – this perhaps partly explains the positive public perception of the UN. The uncomfortable reality is that the UNSC is dominated by the narrow interests of the individual P5 members, despite the fact that the UN is often seen as the arbiter of ‘justness’ on the issue of intervention and the use of force.
Through its myriad of social, political and economic programmes, electoral assistance mechanisms and aid agencies, to name but a few, the UN is indeed a force for good in the world. However, on the issue of addressing conflict and the human tragedies they foment, we should not assume that the decisions coming out of the UNSC are the morally upstanding ones.
The need to overhaul the UNSC
This realisation leaves us with more questions than answers. If the UNSC does not work to satisfaction in its current state, can it be changed or should we simply accept that there is a limit to its potential? The answer clearly lies in reforming the Security Council, principally through addressing the P5, either in terms of its veto privileges or by even bolder measures. Other measures might be to ensure that regional organisations are enabled to take more of a lead in response to crises. However, the reality is that states will never regard possible intervention absent their own distinct interests, in which case the extent to which the UNSC will be able to address conflict and atrocities will always be limited.
Progress may be made through the Geneva II negotiations but the UN must work to push for a ceasefire which will protect Syria’s vulnerable citizens. As the famous quote goes, “with great power comes great responsibility” and the UNSC would do well to conduct itself more in line with this adage.
Catherine Eadie is undertaking a Masters Degree in International Politics and Security at the University of Dundee. Her principal research interests centre around the relationship between conflict and human rights, specifically children’s rights. Catherine can be contacted at: [email protected]