The Russian veto of the UN resolution calling for an end to violence in Syria highlights, once again, the urgent need for Security Council reform.
The Russian and Chinese veto of a United Nations’ Security Council resolution on Syria (fourth of February) has drawn widespread condemnation. Although both China and Russia are co-responsible for the failure of the UN, Moscow has been the main focus of international criticism. In this article, we examine Russia’s arguments against the resolution, its unstated motives and the urgent necessity of carrying out the long postponed reform of the Security Council to remove the right to veto.
The resolution called for the end of 11-month violence in Syria and a subsequent Syrian-led transition to democracy. By doing so, the resolution endorsed the League of Arab States’ plan of November 2011, which, put simply, leads to regime change and probably the end of Assad’s rule. If the resolution had been approved, it would have been the first time since the uprising began that the Security Council took a binding decision to condemn Damascus, paving the way to further actions should Bashar Al-Assad not comply.
Russia expressed a variety of reasons to justify its reluctance against the resolution and, ultimately, its veto. The overarching theme is that with a resolution like the one that has been blocked, the UN would have been meddling in the internal affairs of a state, damaging its sovereignty. From this perspective, it is possible to understand reasonable demands on behalf of Russia to include in the resolution a call for all parties in the conflict to stop the killing. This was granted, and the final resolution specified that armed opposition groups had to halt their attacks against state institutions. Also, stronger measures which were being taken into consideration and that have already been applied by the Arab League member states, such as a voluntary arms embargo, were dropped to satisfy Russia. Besides, there was not mention to any form of military intervention. However, this was not enough. In the end, the main source of disagreement and, by extension, what supposedly brought about the veto, was that Russia opposed any form of “precooked” solution to the Syrian crisis. This includes those provisions in the text of the resolution asking for a political transition. According to Russian officials, asking for regime change, together with the demand to Syrian military to be removed from the streets, would have supposed taking sides in an internal conflict. This, or so they argued, would have limited a genuinely Syrian solution to the crisis.
Unquestionably, the respect for state sovereignty and not intervening in the internal affairs of a country are two basic principles of international law, as stated in United Nations’ resolution 2625 in 1970. However, since these general norms were announced, international law has been developed to legislate for exceptional situations in which the international community might and should intervene somehow. The idea behind this was to establish the legal means to prevent mass atrocities and widespread violations of basic human rights. In the minds of everyone exist notable traumatic experiences like the conflicts in Rwanda and the Balkans in the nineties. Thus, among these instruments is the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the doctrine which vindicated the UN’s resolution 1973 on Libya last year– not vetoed either by Russia or China. Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005, the R2P basically states that every state has the obligation of protecting its population against genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
In the case a state cannot do this or it is in fact the perpetrator of those violations of human rights, the international community is entitled to take any necessary action, including here the use of force in full compliance with the rest of international norms. Of course, it can be argued that instruments like R2P, like many other areas of international law, are too generic or even open to (biased) interpretation to say exactly what is the right thing to do in a situation like the one ongoing in Syria.But this problem, like many others in international relations, is mainly a political problem, rather than legal. However, in this case a political agreement did not happen. Moscow’s stance responds to realpolitik considerations which seemingly renders consensus unattainable.
For many reasons, Syria is not Libya, and this is particularly applicable to Russia. Firstly, Damascus is Moscow’s only big ally in the region, where the United States and other powers are certainly better positioned geostrategically. Secondly, Russia has a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus, which serves to maintain its presence in the Mediterranean. Last but no least, Syria is the main importer of Russian weapons –being Russia the first conventional arms exporter in the world. Apart from this, Russian veto can also be interpreted both as a show of autocratic coherence and a way to boost Vladimir Putin’s popularity among certain sectors of the electorate ahead of March presidential elections. From this perspective, what happened in Libya before affects the debate over Syria now. Although resolution 1973 only called for a non-fly zone over Libya and the implementation of previous measures, in the end it was used by NATO to conduct a campaign which provoked regime change and, in fact, helped killed Gaddafi. That is not what the Russians thought they agreed on when they did not veto the resolution, so now they feel naïve, betrayed and not keen on following the same steps again. This holds true even if the blocked resolution on Syria and its context are miles away from resolution 1973. Thus, while this is not the sole explanation to the veto, it is an important factor to take into account. Moreover, in the future it might occur again if Moscow decides to keep its confrontational approach to the West.
There is a fundamental lesson to be learned from the above. Analysing collective response to security matters: when the stakes are low or those who decide the policy share the same interests, or do not have clear interests at all, it is easy to reach a consensus and translate it into actions –this was the case for Libya. However, when there are divergent interests around an issue, it becomes dramatically harderto find action that is politically acceptable for all the parties involved. This is particularly a problem if in the process of decision making the conflicting parties over the policy hold any type of veto, and this takes us back to Syria. Because of the rules of the Security Council and the reality of veto, crisis like the one we are witnessing in Syria are likely to remain unresolved. With Russian and Chinese vetoes, Bashar al-Assad has effectively got a carte blanche to keep abusing its people. Therefore, the debate about reforming the UN Charter in relation to the way the Security Council works has to be reignited. Without this and the subsequent removal of veto power, international law preserving security and protecting our most fundamental rights will always be a captive to spurious motives.