Earlier this week, US President Donald Trump hosted a lunch for ambassadors to the UN Security Council at the White House. According to a transcript of his speech, he started softly, cracking jokes about the ambassadors’ spouses, as well as the US ambassador, Nikki Haley.
He soon got down to business, however, lambasting the council for their inaction on Syria. “On Syria, the Council failed again this month to respond to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. A great disappointment; I was very disappointed by that,” he said.
The Security Council is the UN body charged with protecting international peace and security. It has five permanent members - the US, Russia, UK, China and France - and ten other temporary members that serve two-year terms. If any of the five permanent members vote “no” on a resolution, then that vote acts a veto.
This veto has often meant that resolutions have been blocked by one or more of the permanent members if they are about conflicts they consider politically sensitive. Frequently, that has meant council inaction on Middle Eastern conflicts.
Trump did not mention it in his speech on Monday, but his administration came to power vowing not to let an “anti-Israel” resolution be passed by the council again, as happened in December with one that told Israel to stop building settlements in occupied Palestine. (The US abstained in a highly unusual move.)
The council’s inability to act in these politically charged situations has led to some to call for its restructure. Sarah Kay, a human rights lawyer specialized in counter terrorism and military intervention, is one of them. “To me, the structure of the UNSC itself is an obstacle to the resolution of certain conflicts,” she told Al Bawaba.
“Of the five permanent members with a right of veto, three were directly involved in Iraq; one is providing state funds to Israel; and one is directly supporting the Syrian regime. As a result, even with the input of the 10 other members, present on a rotating basis, they still can't untie a knot - there is no overriding the veto.”
Noha Aboueldahab, a visiting fellow at Brookings who specialises in transitional justice in the Middle East, agrees that vetos have stood in the way of resolving conflicts such as Syria, but said there is more to the issue. “The situations in Libya and Sudan were referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) by the council, but there hasn’t been much follow up from them, even though you’ve had the prosecutor of the ICC pushing the council to do so.”
Kay concurred that the problem was more than just the absence of resolutions: “The UNSC has held states accountable, but the issue is that those resolutions are not enforced.”
With impunity rife for violators of human rights in the Middle East in recent history - whether Israel’s actions in Palestine; successive Egyptian governments’ killing of protesters; or the mass slaughter of Syrian citizens by Assad - it is plain that the systems set up to prevent or punish such atrocities are not functioning as they should. Aboueldahab, however, does not think that all the blame can be laid at the door of the UN.
“The Security Council is not irrelevant, but there’s an over-reliance on it. This is why the Rome Statute [the treaty that founded the ICC] is so important, because it gets states to push for justice on their own.”
While allowing that it couldn’t affect states that are not a member, such as Syria, she said the example of Syrian civil society in collecting evidence and building cases was an inspiring one. “This push is a very good example of an alternative option for justice, even it can only target limited numbers of people.”
Kay said that more could still be done if states were willing to make the UN work. “The problem isn't that humanitarian or human rights law no longer fits the conflict paradigm - it's that those norms are protected through enforcement. The UN is a supranational structure, but it's up to the states to enforce it, and there is no political will to do so.”
Trump, for his part, struck an optimistic note at the end of his speech, despite his criticism. “You just don’t see the United Nations, like, solving conflicts. I think that’s going to start happening now. I can see it,” he said.
Like many tasks he has set for himself, though, this is not one to be underestimated, according to Kay. “Reforming the Security Council means reforming the world as we've seen it and come to understand it since 1946. It's doable, but will require a very strong commitment.”
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