The Syrian civil war and the paralysis of the United Nations

“The failure of the international community, in particular the Security Council, to take concrete actions to stop the blood-letting, shames us all […] For almost two years now, my staff and the staff of the independent Commission of Inquiry have been interviewing Syrians inside and outside the country, listening to their stories and gathering evidence. We have been repeatedly asked: ‘Where is the international community? Why aren’t you acting to stop this slaughter?’ We have no satisfactory answer to those questions. Collectively, we have fiddled at the edges while Syria burns.”

Navi Pillay

Navi Pillay

On January 2nd of 2013, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights published a statistical report of the approximate death toll reached in Syria at that point, speaking of at least 60,000 dead. It was accompanied by the statement above[1], given by the High Commissioner herself, Navi Pillay, who with these words painted an unnerving and chilling, but nonetheless accurate picture of the UN and its inability to come up with a peaceful resolution for the Syrian conflict. At 21 months in the conflict, despite three adopted Security Council resolutions[2], the UN still stood nowhere.
Today, months later, the world has witnessed a peak in the pressure on the United Nations to act in a substantial way when (at least) hundreds were killed[3] during a chemical attack in Ghouta, which was said to be commanded by the Syrian government (though this was never confirmed by the UN team of inspectors led by Åke Sellström). Eventually, following a round of threats of military intervention by France, the United Kingdom and the United States, the UN responded on September 28th in the form of Security Council resolution 2118, enabling the expeditious destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile by the United Nations and the OPCW (the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons).
The unanimous vote on the resolution was called “historic” by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, a denominator which, given the history of the Syrian civil war and the practice of the even more than usually deadlocked UN Security Council, definitely is not unwarranted. Historic as the resolution may be, though, it far from brought any possible end to the conflict in sight.

The R2P and the Security Council deadlock

It’s not for lack of trying, though. As the international community’s primordial organisation, the UN has appointed itself the tremendous task of maintaining and promoting international peace and security, all the while preferring peaceful means, but when necessary resorting to military interventions. This aim in mind, in 2005 the UN General Assembly unanimously endorsed the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (or R2P), which in a nutshell burdens the international community with the responsibility of protecting the civilians of those countries that cannot or will not provide this protection themselves. It is this responsibility that is being called upon by numerous high-ranking UN officials when they beseech the international community to take a stand in the Syrian conflict. Or in the words of Ban Ki-Moon: “[…] I underscored that Syria was a critical test of our will and capacity to implement the responsibility to protect. […] Inaction cannot be an option for our community of nations. We cannot stand by while populations fall victim to these grave crimes and violations. We must uphold the core responsibilities of the United Nations.”[4]
Unfortunately for Ki-Moon and the Syrian population, the impetus needed for a true implementation of R2P still remains with the Security Council, the only body of the United Nations infused with the capacity to set up humanitarian interventions of both peaceful and military nature, according to chapters VI and VII of the UN Charter. Every resolution taken by the Security Council needs the unanimous vote of the P5, the five permanent members of the Council, and here is where it all falls down: thrice already throughout the past two and a half years, important and far-reaching draft resolutions have been vetoed by both Russia and China. These double vetoes, as they are called, have different motivations, but principally they are the consequence of the important political and strategic ties between Russia and Syria, as well as the firm defence by both Russia and China of the principle of state sovereignty in international relations. This principle, acknowledged as a part of international customary law, stands firmly against the doctrine of humanitarian intervention – and thus against the notion of R2P.

Is the UN then doing nothing at all?

The Security Council impasse severely cripples the UN in its search for conflict resolution, but it does not immobilize its completely: the other UN bodies and offices do everything in their might to fill in the void. Each in their own way, the UN General Assembly, the Human Rights Council, the Secretary-General and the High Commissioner for Human Rights as well as the Special Envoy for Syria (Lakhdar Brahimi) and the Commission of Inquiry for Syria try to inform, warn and engage the international community into doing something to stop the Syrian bloodbath. Though the UN’s traditional “naming, blaming and shaming”-tactic is only marginally working in trying to budge the different conflict actors towards resolution, it seems the international community is now at least fully informed about and confronted with the disaster that is taking place in Syria, an achievement which is definitely partly attributable to the different UN offices in New York and Geneva.
UN negotiation attempts are being made continuously, with Kofi Annan’s six-point plan as a notable, but unfortunately failed endeavour. The Geneva peace talks are another UN-facilitated initiative, though their success has depended and will continue to depend largely on the willingness of both the United States and Russia – the principal initiators – as well as the parties to the conflict to participate in the talks. What concerns the long-announced Geneva II conference, the opposition groups in particular seem not interested to participate in more talks, delaying the taking place of the conference itself once more.[5]

The catch-22 of humanitarian intervention in Syria

The evident paralysis of the UN with regard to Syria is due to three important factors. A first can be found in the ever-increasing complexity of the Syrian political situation: both the government and the opposition groups are marked by sectarian violence, the Syrian army proves to be incredibly resilient and each of the different conflict parties is being supported by important regional and international partners. On top of this, for a while now the revolt threatens to escalate in a religious extremist war between Sunnis and Shiites. To initiate an effective humanitarian intervention or negotiate a ceasefire in these circumstances, is an incredibly difficult task.
A second factor concerns the important strategic interests at play in the Syrian conflict. To initiate a humanitarian intervention supported by the international community is not only extremely difficult, there is also no guarantee whatsoever that any such intervention has a reasonable chance of success. The regional and international interests at play in Syria could turn a military intervention into a very ‘explosive’ operation, to the extent that the conflict could be regionalized and internationalized. Subsequently, the UN faces a catch-22 in Syria: either she intervenes, risking to expand the conflict exponentially, or she remains silent, letting the bloodbath that Syria is now fill up to the brim.
Finally, on a more normative level, up until today the international community shares no consensus on the primacy of the principles of international politics. Where on one hand, state sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence remain crucial principles of the international community, others – primarily western countries – see international solidarity and humanitarian intervention as worthwhile and primordial values of the international society. Unfortunately for the UN, the doctrine of humanitarian intervention in the form of R2P has to contend with its questionable history in Libya and its generally too vague notions and conceptions.

Where do we go from here?

Following the previous reflections, it can rightly be said that the Syrian conflict has become “the world’s greatest proxy war since Vietnam”[6]. This means that to end the conflict, one must not only reconcile the direct parties to the conflict, but also – or at least: certainly – the indirect partners of the conflict parties. Here Rami G. Khouri, journalist and opinion maker, sees a window of opportunity in two developments that may soon change the political landscape: the Russian-American agreement on removing Syria’s chemical weapons, supported by resolution 2118 of the Security Council, and the increasing readiness of American and Iran to negotiate seriously on nuclear issues, sanctions and other matters.
Improved relations between these actors are indispensable when working towards a peaceful resolution of the Syrian civil war. Khouri however supplies that one more actor is necessary on the road towards such peace: Saudi Arabia. With Saudi Arabia, a peace negotiation in the style of Geneva II would finally have the support necessary to try and reach a comprehensive peace agreement. In this light, Saudi Arabia’s recent – and for that matter: unprecedented – refusal of the Security Council seat offered to it[7] and its advocacy for a new UN resolution which condemns human rights violations as well as the presence of foreign fighters in Syria[8] are extremely interesting developments which should be taken into account in the next negotiation processes.

Inge Geerardyn


[1] Pillay, N. (2013, January 2). Data analysis suggests over 60,000 people killed in Syria conflict (Press statement). Consulted at www.ohchr.org.
[2] SC Resolutions 2042, 2043 and 2059, respectively authorizing the dispatch of a team of military observers to monitor compliance with Annan’s (failed) ceasefire agreement, the setting up of UNSMIS and the prolonging of the observer mission.
[3] Estimates of the death toll range from 281 to 1729 fatalities, not less than 51 of whom were rebel fighters.
[4] Ban (2012, September 5). Responsibility to Protect Faces Urgent Test ‘Here and Now’, Secretary-General Tells General Assembly, Stressing Immense Human Cost of Failure in Syria (Document n° SG/SM/14490). Consulted at www.un.org
[5] Euronews (2013, November 5). Geneva II Syria peace talks delayed again as all sides fail to agree conditions. Consulted at www.euronews.com
[6] Khouri, R.G. (2013, October 23). “Putting Out the Syrian Fire” in The New York Times. Consulted at www.nytimes.com
[7] Al Arabiya (2013, October 18). Saudi Arabia turns down U.N. Security Council membership. Consulted at www.alarabiya.net
[8] Al Jazeera (2013, October 31). Saudi Arabia pushes UN resolution on Syria abuse. Consulted at www.aljazeera.com

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