The Syrian Civil War has raged for over 3 years and claimed an estimated 150,000 lives, with no sign of abating. During this time, reports from Syria have documented every violation of humanitarian law and human rights norms imaginable, including: the targeting of civilians, including children, in armed combat; mass displacements; the use of chemical weapons / “barrel bombs” / other indiscriminate means of killing; kidnappings / torture / forced disappearances; and the reemergence of Polio to name a few. The International Community, led by the U.N., has been powerless to stop these horrific acts:
The United Nations on Tuesday rejected calls for it to deliver humanitarian aid across borders into Syria without the approval of the government in Damascus, saying such operations would be possible only under a stronger U.N. Security Council resolution.
“It’s the longstanding and consistent position of the United Nations that consistent with its charter … the organization can engage in activities within the territory of a member state only with the consent of that government of that state,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Tuesday.
“The only exception is where the Security Council has adopted a binding resolution under Chapter 7 of the (U.N.)Charter, authorizing the organization to act without the government’s consent,” he said.
Diplomats also said Moscow would likely be opposed to a Chapter 7 resolution to allow cross-border aid deliveries without the consent of Assad’s government.
Russia, supported by China, has shielded its ally Syria on the Security Council during the war. They vetoed three resolutions that would have condemned Syria’s government and threatened it with possible sanctions.
The purpose of this blog is not to assign blame for the situation in Syria–I have been very straightforward about my beliefs on this issue. Instead, I would like to turn attention on the inability of the U.N., in its current framework, to uphold international law in general.
In instances where governments are either ineffective in dealing with, or are themselves perpetrating gross human rights violations, the responsibility to protect (R2P) is supposed to give the U.N. authority to intervene. With the vast majority of today’s wars occurring within country borders, the R2P was a necessary modernization of U.N. peacekeeping initiatives. But R2P has not been as effective as its supporters may have hoped; [apparently] the U.N. still needs a Security Council authorized Chapter 7 approval whenever it enters a country without government approval, rendering R2P useless without unanimous Security Council support.
As a proud American, a student of the political economy of development, and a former UNDP Democratic Governance Group Intern, it is fair to say I believe in the importance of effective democratic governance from both an ideological and practical stance; I believe there is no alternative path towards sustainable human development. Democratic governance is not only a “means” to important “ends”, it is also an important “end” itself, providing and protecting the political freedoms people needed for self-determination and a life of dignity.
Under the current U.N. framework, permanent members of the Security Council (China, France, Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States) each hold veto power. Two of these members, China and Russia, are decided opposed to concepts of democratic governance. These two countries find themselves in a position where they do not vote on individual issues (such as whether to invoke the R2P in Syria), but rather on ideological issues (should anything trump “national sovereignty”). China and Russia are engaged in an existential battle, fighting for an authoritarian identity in an increasingly democratic world; they will NEVER vote against a national government, afraid of the precedent it may set. All the while, the actual issue at hand goes unaddressed, leading the U.N. to abandon the very people who risk their lives championing U.N. principles.
“Democracy is one of the universal and indivisible core values and principles of the United Nations.” It seems antithetical that an organization dedicated to the principles of democracy, human rights, peace and international law, would leave its most important decisions to such a decidedly undemocratic process.
It is time for the U.N. to bring the democratic process to the U.N.S.C. In the event of a Security Council veto, the U.N. General Assembly should have a vote as to whether it should uphold the veto or not. This vote could either require 3/4 of member states (there are currently 193 states) to vote to overturn (an abstention could be viewed as a vote in favor of the veto; if the issue is important enough to veto, a representative will be present to vote), or it could be weighted based on member state population (similarly to many legislative branches, like the U.S. Congress).
The details at this point are unimportant, what’s important is the concept that no one nation should be able to veto the will of the vast majority of the international community. Such a resolution (which would require an amendment to the U.N. Charter, a process which itself is subject to the unanimous will of the Security Council) would cost all permanent U.N.S.C. members (including the United States) some power in U.N.S.C. decision making. The Permanent members of the Security Council must accept the necessity of such an amendment. The alternative is an ineffective U.N., leading to the eventual breakdown of the international norms which made the second half of the 20th century the most peaceful and prosperous era in history.