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The UN’s light spot in the Syrian darkness

By Claudia Elion

800.000 Tutsi's were killed during the Rwandan genocide. Over 480.000 Sudanese civilians were killed during the Darfur genocide. And 8.000 Bosniaks were killed during the Srebrenica genocide. And three times the international community promised “never again". But in Syria, already more than 450.000 civilians died during the war.

To prevent more humanitarian disasters, the United Nations (UN) developed the doctrine of the 'Responsibility to Protect', also known as 'R2P'. In 2005 all (then) 191 Member States of the UN agreed that the international community has a certain 'responsibility to protect'. Every state has the responsibility to protect its own population against atrocious crimes, such as genocide, and if it fails in doing so the international community has the possibility to intervene in the country concerned. The R2P can be imposed only by the UN Security Council (UNSC) through a binding resolution.

Irrespective of how beautiful the intention of this doctrine might seem – in reality it appears to be a failure. At most it seems to be a moral duty laid upon the five permanent member states of the UNSC, whereas they do not adopt moral reasoning. Much rather, the governments of the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom and China seem to pursue self-interest – such as economic and national power interests, rather than genuinely striving to roll-out and implement R2P.

We saw it in the case of Rwanda in 1994. Then-President of the USA Bill Clinton repeatedly said the US would not intervene because they “had no interest in Rwanda" [1]. We experienced it in the case of Libya, 2011 – when the Responsibility to Protect doctrine was for the first time invoked following UNSC Resolution 1973.

This historical resolution, approving humanitarian intervention without the consent of the government of Libya, authorized UN Member States to use 'all necessary measures' to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under attack in Libya. The resolution, initiated by France, imposed a no-fly zone above Libya, but was eventually used to justify air strikes by countries, and later NATO, against Muammar Gaddafi's military. What was the genuine motivation for France to initiate the resolution? Sources suggest that former President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, embarked on this historical R2P route merely to push for a military operation in order to gain a greater share of Libyan oil production and for political self-interest [2]. Mr. Sarkozy obviously never admitted this.

The problem thus seems to be the misuse of the concept of R2P by some of the permanent members of the UNSC. R2P is a vulnerable concept. On the one hand, UNSC members can use R2P as a justification for (humanitarian) intervention in their own interests, as in Libya. On the other hand, these members can easily veto any R2P-resolutions, as the current conflict in Syria teaches us.

Although mass atrocities are committed by the Syrian government forces as well as rebel groups against the Syrian population, the UNSC seems to be unable to find political willingness to formulate a consensus about the use of force and implementation of R2P. Already six resolutions have been vetoed by the governments of Russia and China, making the UNSC a powerless body.

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UNSC Veto, A Sword Cutting Humanity's Hand. Source: flickr.com

From Russia's side, this veto can be explained by the old and deep ties Russia has to Syria, especially when it comes to economic trade and military presence in Syria. Regional political events (wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel-Palestine) have also led to a transformation of Russia's once powerful influence in the region into a less influential role. To safeguard its small influence in the future, keeping President Bashir al-Assad in charge in Syria is of the greatest importance for Russia. For China, the principle of non-interference is enough to decline any R2P resolutions. It views military interventions as a disguised form of imperialism [3].

There is however a point of light in the darkness, being the UNGA Resolution 377 (V) (1950) 'Uniting for Peace'. This resolution enables the UNGA to lead the political search for resolving topics of grave concern. Once the UNSC is 'deadlocked' on a certain topic, meaning there is a constant lack of unanimity in the UNSC, the UNGA should consider the matter immediately with a view to making a (non-binding) resolution. It can recommend states about collective measures to be taken, including the use of armed force when necessary, in case of a breach of the peace or act of aggression.

In the Syrian case, the UNGA thus has the capability to agree on a resolution demanding, for example, an end to all unlawful attacks in Syria, and immediate and unhindered humanitarian access so that life-saving aid can reach all those in need [4]. In this way, at least the most vulnerable group, the civilians, is protected.

With this knowledge we can draw up a conclusion easily. Since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011 up to 450.000 Syrians have been killed. But the UNSC apparently lacks the willingness and/or political courage and motivation to impose the R2P doctrine. However, with the 'Uniting for Peace' resolution the UNGA member states have a new and powerful tool at hand to try to stop the ever-rising civilian death toll.

The international community has the responsibility to protect Syrian civilians. Although a political solution for the conflict in the near future might seem unreachable, it has the capability of finding a minimal humanitarian solution. In the words of the UNs Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, countries now must act to prevent “another Srebrenica, another Rwanda, which we are sadly ready to recognize written on that wall in front of us, unless something takes place" [5].

[1] See Clinton's speeches in Ghosts of Rwanda, a documentary by Frontline (2004)

[2] https://twitter.com/wikileaks/status/712391604477231104?lang=en

[3] http://thediplomat.com/2016/09/chinas-syria-agenda/

[4] Content of an appeal of the Global Civil Society to UN Member States urging them to request a special UNGA meeting, because of the UNSC's deadlock. See: https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/supporting_resources/global_civil_society_appeal_to_un_member_states_syria_0.pdf

[5] Staffan de Mistura during a press conference, 6 October 2016