Syria’s helpless civilians get no cover from veto-plagued UN
Diplomats at the United Nations, frustrated by the inability of the sclerotic UN Security Council to halt the bloodshed in Syria, took their case to the wider General Assembly and won overwhelming backing for an immediate ceasefire and an end to all attacks on civilians.
The December 9th vote at the General Assembly, the UN body that groups all 193 members, came days after Russia and China vetoed a draft resolution in the 15-member Security Council that had called for a seven-day ceasefire in Aleppo.
At the United Nations, it is, of course, the Security Council that calls the shots — or at least it is supposed to. More often than not, on a range of issues that notably includes conflicts in the Middle East, the council fails to produce initiatives that have the support of increasingly conflicting power blocs.
Canada took the issue to the General Assembly in the knowledge that the larger body cannot in practice overrule the will of the so-called permanent powers, although there are arguments that it theoretically could, and should, break the frequent Security Council logjams.
What the assembly can do is provide a snapshot of wider international opinion and perhaps give the lie to arguments in the council that tend to narrow all regional conflicts to a matter of big power rivalry.
Bashar al-Jaafari, Damascus’s lugubrious envoy to the United Nations, saw the dangers of widening the debate. In the smaller forum of the Security Council, he can usually count on Moscow’s intimidating Vitaly Churkin to watch Syrian President Bashar Assad’s back.
In a speech to the assembly, Jaafari went on the attack by accusing Canada of being part of an “illegal” international coalition that violates Syrian sovereignty and destroys its infrastructure and whose true goal is to prevent the Iraqi and Syrian armies from closing in on terrorists.
Then, offering something of a hostage to fortune, he predicted that a vote against the Canadian draft resolution would show the support of UN members for the Syrian government’s right and duty to fight terrorism.
However, 122 of them voted in favour of a resolution that referred to Damascus’s “violent oppression of civilian protests… which later escalated to the direct shelling of civilian population areas, fuelled the escalation of armed violence and extremist groups”. Only 13 members voted against the resolution; 36 abstained.
Churkin’s argument to the General Assembly that Russia was fighting terrorists “pouring into the country through all the cracks to fulfil their instructions to overthrow the legitimate authorities” had evidently proved less effective than his Security Council veto.
Jaafari complained after the meeting that the non-binding assembly vote had been politicised and that it violated the UN Charter.
The latest failure of the Security Council to take effective action on Syria raised the perennial question about what it is there for. It is frequently constrained by inter-power conflicts or by inflexible positions on a range of issues. The United States’ invariable vetoes in favour of Israel, which makes the Jewish state virtually bulletproof at the United Nations, are often cited as a symbol of the world body’s diplomatic ineffectiveness.
At the moment, it is Russia that is rendering its own ally, Syria, bulletproof in the face of international efforts to restrain it.
The Security Council still has its uses when it has shared interests. The permanent members helped to exert pressure that shepherded Iran towards an agreement on resolving concerns about its nuclear programme. It has also ordered peacekeepers into action in many parts of the world to restore order.
In recent years, however, renewed tensions between the East and the West have reasserted themselves, particularly since the Ukraine crisis began in November 2013, and have contributed to the Security Council’s present ineffectiveness.
One turning point came in 2011 over another Middle East crisis, Libya. By abstaining at the Security Council, Russia and China effectively nodded through a mandate for Western states, led by France and Britain, to establish no-fly zones to protect civilians from the forces of Muammar Qaddafi.
The Russians later accused the Western forces of abusing the UN mandate by going beyond its provisions to topple the Libyan dictator. The mistrust engendered by the Libyan crisis can be seen in the disagreements over Syria.
That does not mean the Security Council cannot play an effective role but analysts of the United Nations say it has historically worked better when it cooperates with other international institutions, sometimes regional and sometimes supranational.
The latest diplomatic deadlock in New York will lead to more calls for expanding the council or for greater executive power for the General Assembly. However, that brings no relief in the short term for Syria’s civilians, whatever side of the battle lines they find themselves on.
In a statement from Geneva that almost coincided with the General Assembly vote, UN Human Rights High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein marked Human Rights Day — December 10th — by lamenting that “2016 has been a disastrous year for human rights across the globe”.
And of all the challenges facing the world community, “Syria is the starkest example of failure across the board”, he said.