In this last week, New Zealand took two opportunities, one by Murray McCully at the Security Council and one by John Key at the General Assembly, to deplore the United Nations Security Council for failing to act in Syria. Between Bashar Al-Assad and ISIS/L, the Situation in Syria has become just as bad as, if not worse than, Rwanda in 1994. Last year, the deputy Secretary-General told the UN that a “failure of political will” led to the “cascade of human tragedy” that left between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Tutsi Rwandans slaughtered and a further two million Rwandans displaced seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. In Syria, more than 300,000 civilians have been killed (of which more than a quarter have been women and children) since 2011, leading to the current refugee crisis of over four million (registered) refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries, and a further six million domestically displaced within Syria.
It’s hard to really comprehend the numbers and the sheer scale of the problem; night after night, the news recites the statistics and we become numb to the reality that a group of people the size of the population of New Zealand is currently trying to find a new home. When it comes to determining why this has happened, the knowledge that this could all have been avoided is crushing. Since the first protests held in March 2011 in the context of the Arab Spring, and the violent response from the government, there have been many opportunities for action. Yet every time real action has been proposed, it has been shut down.
Four Security Council resolutions on Syria have been explicitly vetoed, with many more experiencing the “soft veto” – draft resolutions that never even make it to the debating chamber because permanent members have indicated that they will unconditionally veto. Every time this happens, war crimes and crimes against humanity are implicitly permitted to continue by the global community.
In 2005 the United Nations unanimously adopted the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, which argues that sovereignty is not an absolute right, and that aspects of sovereignty are forfeited when states fail to protect (or themselves cause) mass atrocity crimes and severe human rights violations. The kicker was that UN Security Council would be the only body that could authorise military intervention. It did so in Darfur (2006), Libya (2011-2012), Cote D’Ivoire (2011), Yemen (2011), Mali (2012-2013), and Sudan/South Sudan (2011-2013). Yet it remains paralysed in the case of Syria, only managing to agree to stop the Syrian government from using chemical weapons against its own people. The Security Council had and still has a Responsibility to Protect, and it has failed to uphold that responsibility thus far.
Many, many proposals for Security Council reform have been proposed over the decades, driven by frustration over the blocking nature of the veto. The situation has only worsened over time, with reports that the permanent members now meet and discuss resolutions in private, essentially pre-determining the outcome of Security Council sessions and locking out the ten rotating elected members. To be frank, the Security Council is currently imbalanced and does not accurately reflect the true power structures of the world we live in today. A structure that allows for entrenched, self-validating authority and privilege will only cause the divide to widen over time.
What looks like the most promising reform proposal at this stage is to prevent the use of veto in cases of mass atrocities or genocide, which would align with the R2P doctrine and the arguments surrounding the “responsibility not to veto”. The proposal is only a small step towards rebalancing the Security Council, but it is supported by both France and the United Kingdom (which only makes it marginally more likely to happen).
However, this is only a band-aid solution. The Security Council’s inaction in Syria is only a symptom of the widening divide and eternal struggle between the West (US, UK, and France) and the East (Russia and China). In 2013 and 2014, a third of the General Assembly called for Security Council and veto reform in their General Debate speeches. More substantial changes will be required in order to clear the blockage that restricts the flow of political will through the Security Council.
Personally, I would support increased utilisation of UNGA Resolution 377A (“Uniting for Peace), which has unfortunately mostly become an idealised plot device for writers (I’m looking at you, House of Cards). In response to inaction by the Security Council to respond to the Korean War in 1950, a precedent was established that allows a special majority (2/3rds) of the General Assembly to override vetos in the Security Council and have “final responsibility” for restoring international peace and security. Of course, a lot of international relations and politics still limit the ultimate utility of this mechanism, but removing the bottleneck of the Security Council may be what is necessary to salvage the efficacy of the United Nations.
As the Prime Minister said: “We cannot afford to let the council go from an institution with failings to a failed institution.” Business as usual does not cut it. Without reform the Security Council will only descend into irrelevancy (and drag the entire United Nations down with it) until someone believes that they have the mandate to try something different. The uncertainty of that is unsettling, but more importantly in the meantime, the deaths continue.