Yesterday’s veto, by Russia and China, of a UN Security Council resolution that would have condemned Syria’s crackdown on regime opponents and supported an Arab League plan to end the violence has provoked outrage from Western governments, human rights organizations, and international relations experts. The veto came amid a brutal crackdownin the city of Homs that reportedly left over 200 people dead. Russia and China claim that the resolution unfairly singled out Syria’s government for blame and ignored the culpability of opposition fighters.
The Syria crisis is only the latest in a series of cases in which the UN has failed to act against atrocities seemingly condemned by its charter due to the veto power granted to the “Big Five” permanent members of the Security Council: the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, and China. If any of these five members votes against a Security Council resolution, the resolution is automatically defeated. (The Syria vote was 13 in favor and 2 opposed).
Even the UN’s strongest supporters have expressed great disappointment at this vote and have suggested that the UN has failed in one of its core missions. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon issued a statement saying the vote “undermines the role of the United Nations and the international community in this period when the Syrian authorities must hear a unified voice calling for an immediate end to its violence against the Syrian people.”
Middle East expert Marc Lynch likewise highlighted the serious implications–far beyond Syria–of this failure: “…The failure of the UN to act, as Secretary General Ban Ki Moon suggested, harms the institution itself by revealing its inability to act in defense of the Charter’s promise. The next stages, whether military or not (and I expect not), will more resemble the Kosovo and Iraq campaigns which were launched without international legitimacy. This will significantly undermine the prospects that such actions will contribute to the positive development of international norms of atrocity prevention or the more controversial ‘responsibility to protect.'”
Is it time to drastically reform the UN, perhaps by eliminating the veto privileges of the Big Five, a group of countries that is increasingly unrepresentative of the international community at large? Does the Syria vote cast doubt on the continued utility of the UN as an instrument of international peace and security in the 21st century?