As the seventieth anniversary of the United Nations looms, myriad reflections on the organisation’s record are being published and debated. Considering the devastation during which it was conceived, and the Cold War into which it was immediately plunged, the organisation has certainly demonstrated an admirable resilience. The UN’s membership has nearly quadrupled, its remit has expanded exponentially, and the numbers of UN Peacekeepers deployed on active duty is at record levels. And yet, its efficacy remains a perennially contested issue.
When reflecting on the UN’s record it is necessary to first ask “What is the UN?” Obviously it is an international organisation but is the UN independent of states, a servant of states or something in between? The Secretariat – comprising the UN Secretary General and a host of additional departments – is certainly a “UN” body insofar as it not state-based, but when people speak of the UN how often do they actually mean “The Secretariat”? Generally, discussions about the organisation focus on the activities of the General Assembly and the Security Council; these organs are both constitutionally the most powerful within the UN and, importantly, state-based. Thus, when people criticize “the UN” for not reacting swiftly or robustly enough to, for example, the ongoing crisis in Syria, this is arguably unfair; the “UN’s” response to Syria was essentially a function of its member state’s national interests, especially those of the veto-wielding Permanent Five members (P5). It is not the “UN” which has failed the people of Syria, it is, more accurately the P5.
Syria and “the UN”
In the course of the conflict - which has thus far claimed over 220,000 lives - those specifically UN organs with a relevant remit have been vocal and proactive; the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in particular has, from the early stages of the conflict, denounced the barbarity of Assad’s regime and called for robust remedial and punitive action. The UN Secretary-General has also consistently advocated for greater international involvement in the cessation of the slaughter, and the referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court. Other bodies like the Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect have issued similar statements.
These appeals from within the UN, even when coupled with the damning report into the situation by the Human Rights Council’s “Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic”, have not, however, halted the carnage. This is because the position of the Security Council is far more important in determining the “UNs” response to the crisis in Syria than any of the bodies within the Secretariat.
Security Council Mendacity
The Security Council is constitutionally empowered to determine what, if indeed any, remedial action to take in response to intra-state crises. This of course means that coordinated UN action is prey to the veto; in the case of Syria, on four occasions Russia and China have vetoed draft resolutions seeking to impose sanctions on Syria. One need not be a genius or a conspiracy theorist to understand why; Russia has a naval base at Tartus in Syria, sells arms to the regime – even since the conflict began – and Russian energy company Soyuzneftegas signed a $90 million deal with the Syrian oil ministry in December 2013. This has meant that regardless of the escalating scale and duration of the carnage, the Security Council has been, in the words of Ban Ki-moon ‘hopelessly divided in their approaches to ending the conflict’ due to the competing geo-political interests of the P5. Kofi Annan stepped down as UN/Arab League Joint Special Envoy for Syria in August 2012 decrying the ‘finger-pointing and name-calling in the Security Council’ which had impeded his efforts, and in her final speech to the Security Council as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay declared, ‘greater responsiveness by this council would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives’. Indeed, the OHCHR has argued that P5 disunity has actually been a casual factor in the campaign waged by Assad’s forces; ‘The failure of the Security Council to agree on firm collective action’ they wrote ‘appears to have emboldened the Syrian Government to launch an all-out assault in an effort to crush dissent with overwhelming force’.
Beyond just the horrific loss of life the P5’s disunity has caused, the disgraceful response has had a profoundly negative impact on perceptions of the “UN” as a whole. As the Secretary General noted, so long as the crisis rages unabated ‘the credibility of the Security Council and of the entire Organization will continue to suffer’. In September 2012 the General Assembly took the unusual step of condemning the Security Council’s response to Syria but will the general public – or the people suffering in Syria – be aware of, or indeed care about, the subtleties of the UN’s inter-institutional hostilities? Many have asked, with good reason, what the point of the “UN” is if it so clearly fails to deal with the world’s most pressing humanitarian crisis.
With the end of the Cold War many anticipated a new “era of enforcement” whereby the Security Council, freed from Cold War stalemate could act to realise the human rights laws enshrined since 1945. The only means by which this could be done was Chapter VII of the Charter; while the provisions therein stipulated that the Security Council could take action against states – including military action – this was on the basis that the situation constituted a “threat to international peace and security”. Whether intra-state humanitarian crises constituted a threat of this magnitude provoked some dispute, but throughout the 1990s the Security Council, to a wholly unprecedented degree, passed resolutions in response to humanitarian crises by invoking Chapter VII.
The problem was, however, that the primary determinant on whether a Resolution was passed was not the scale of the humanitarian crises but rather the political interests of the P5; the P5 are not under any obligation to act and thus choose when and where to enforce international law. Thus, the hoped-for “age of enforcement” actually evidenced an erratic record reflective of the political interests of the P5. By the end of the decade, following the lamentable inaction in the face of the Rwandan genocide, the massacre at Srebrenica, and the division wrought by NATO’s illegal but ostensibly legitimate intervention in Kosovo in 1999, there was widespread consensus that the existing system for protecting human rights was inadequate; the UN designed in the final stages of World War II had evidently reached the limits of its elasticity and something had to be done to reconcile sovereignty and human rights.
The Responsibility to Protect
The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was vaunted as the solution to this conundrum; from its initial inception in the 2001 report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty the concept was recognised at the 2005 World Summit and has since been periodically invoked by the General Assembly and the Security Council. Yet, R2P does not involve any new laws, obligations, institutional reform or procedural processes. It is based on the idea that states – and the P5 in particular – will be cajoled into being more responsive to human rights protection – domestically and internationally – by moral advocacy.
Even before the crisis in Syria the efficacy of the concept was evidently lacking as the crises in Darfur, Sri Lanka and the DRC raged on without meaningful remedial action by the UN. Syria has, however, illustrated most starkly the impotence of the concept and its near total reliance on the P5; over four years of sustained advocacy has not convinced Russia and China to change their stance.
And yet, despite the utter failure of the concept to exercise meaningful leverage against the P5, the latest campaign launched to reinvigorate R2P – “restraintheveto” – does not seek to alter the powers of the P5 but to pressurise them into behaving better. In light of Russia and China’s wilful use of the veto throughout the crisis in Syria, this appears terribly naïve. Given the ongoing changing distribution of global power, and not lest the fact that Russia recently invaded and annexed part of Ukraine, it is surely safe to say that veto-wielding Russia, and indeed China, are not troubled by opprobrium directed towards them by Western human rights NGOs.
Will the UN See 80?
Unfortunately, much of the good work done by the UN on a daily basis simply goes unnoticed; compliance with the organisation’s laws and procedures rarely makes the headlines, especially as crises in Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic degenerate so horrifically. It is these cases that predominantly determine popular perceptions of the UN, and unfortunately, in the absence of reform, the likelihood is that we will continue to witness an erratic record of human rights enforcement.
The UN has demonstrated great resilience to date but can we reasonably expect an organisation whose charter was drafted by Stalin, Churchill and Truman to be relevant today? People’s awareness of human rights, and their expectations as to their protection and promotion, have been raised exponentially in the post-Cold War era and thus the UN must evolve to meet the new world lest it face irrelevance. So long as the P5 retains its primacy the UN’s future efficacy will be fatally compromised, and thus its long term prospects are grim; surely the UN can’t continue to be a forum for Great Power antipathy, while elsewhere innocents are massacred in their thousands?
As much as Syria has been calamitous for the UN’s credibility, it could also serve as the darkness before the dawn, the catalyst for change; as Liechtenstein’s Ambassador to the UN stated ‘The Council’s current deadlock over Syria is one of the most historic moments at the UN’. Supporting the status quo is now surely no longer tenable; the debacle over Syria has clearly highlighted the folly of R2P’s strategy of moral advocacy, and the pernicious influence of the P5. The task, for those interested in human rights protection, must be to abandon attempts to turn the P5 into moral actors and look towards supporting, and indeed contributing to, proposals for substantive UN reform.