Global Policy Forum

Vetoes Underline Need to Reform UN


For a second time, Russia and China cast a double veto which blocked the Western and Arab League-backed resolution condemning Syria for its brutal crackdown on citizen protests, and calling for regime change. This Global Brief article argues that this most recent double veto clearly illustrates the need for reform of the Security Council. The article states that the Security Council must get rid the veto, which allows the Council’s five permanent members—not just China and Russia - to act in their own self-interest, making the Security Council “undemocratic” and “lacking in legitimacy.”

By Lloyd Axworthy

February 8, 2012

The double veto by the Russians and the Chinese on an Arab League resolution on Syria at the Security Council has created a major crisis for the UN, resulting in new calls for action that promise to circumvent the stalemated organization as the international agency to protect innocent people from being slaughtered by their government.

This, as Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated, "undermines the world body" after the heady days when a UN resolution kicked off a successful effort to thwart the murderous threats of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

In that case, the resolution was backed by the Russians and Chinese, but the ensuing result, the fall of Gadhafi, scared the rulers of those two countries, who began to sense the international community might turn attention to their own dictatorial practices.

The fact Syria buys its arms from Russia and supplies China with oil might just have also figured into their calculated decision, which flies in the face of not just western governments but also the Arab League. To quote the sentiments of U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, this is indeed a "travesty" of the UN process.

What is now at play are calls for a new coalition of countries that will try to find alternate diplomatic and economic means to put pressure on the Syrian government to stop the killing. This bypassing of the UN is repudiation of the international body, but it is not without precedent.

The same thing happened in the case of Kosovo more than 10 years ago, when threat of a Soviet veto caused a coalition to be formed through NATO to give robust diplomacy a try. But when that failed, airstrikes were launched, which stopped the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, in his rabid efforts at ethnic cleansing and ended up with the Serb leader being brought before an international tribunal.

The same scenario will likely be necessary if the deliberate murder of thousands of Syrians is to be stopped.

But we end up with the same result -- a weakened UN and the need for a strengthened international capacity to stop crimes against humanity, which is what gave birth to the Responsibility to Protect idea.

Ultimately, the undermining of the Security Council by the double veto gives urgency to the need for reform of the UN, in particular the revamping of the membership of the Security Council and the downgrading, if not elimination, of the veto.

In the past, I've argued the veto (which is a hangover from the Second World War thinking that the permanent members of the council needed protection against the launch of an invasion across their own borders) needed to be specifically excluded in cases where the protection of civilians was at stake.

Surely, the blatant resistance of two of the five permanent members must now call into question the use of the veto for such self-interested purposes, and the very concept of permanent members with exalted status and powers.

The impact of this present situation cannot be left to just end with a whimper.

It needs active and purposeful action to try to restore the UN and underline the necessity of the international community taking action against mass murder and serious threat to civilian lives -- the very essence of the Responsibility to Protect.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper finds himself in a very strategic position to show leadership at this critical time.

This week he is meeting the Chinese leaders, to sell them tar-sands oil and engage in trade discussions. But he can't go there and let this egregious decision of the Chinese leadership go unmentioned.

He needs to clearly let them know Canadians have long supported the UN and were the initiators of the Responsibility to Protect, fitting with the human rights values of the country and they are deeply opposed to the veto on action to stop the bloodshed in Syria and want to see some remedial action.

It has been touted by commentators our prime minister is not all that interested in the UN or in the worldwide efforts to constrain the violent repression of citizens by their governments. But this is a government that did actively participate in the Libyan action and therefore has demonstrated its willingness to support international action to suppress state-led murder.

He is, therefore, in a position to express the broadly felt opposition to the Chinese position and, if he wants to move the yardsticks even further, to engage the Chinese leadership on what they are prepared to do to stop the deterioration of the situation in Syria that will most likely lead to civil war and many more lives lost.

The prime minister this week will find himself in a unique position to lead in starting a dialogue with a major protagonist in one of today's most pressing circumstances. Let's hope he takes up the challenge.


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