On October 4th, the UN Security Council failed to pass a resolution denouncing the Syrian government’s ferocious oppression of opposition protesters. Both China and Russia decided to veto the resolution, recalling memories and revealing traces of the Cold War battle between democracy and authoritarianism. Further, China especially, fears and loathes the interference of the Western world into the internal affairs of other nations.
China and Russia feared the resolution, which condemned “grave and systematic human rights violations,” would allow the West and NATO to use this as an excuse to bomb Syria, as they did with Libya. The UN passed a similar resolution denouncing Libya. The resolution proposed tough sanctions on Syria if they failed to end their brutal crackdown on political protesters within 30 days of its passing. The United States, E.U., and Canada have already imposed unilateral sanctions on Syria and have called for President Bashar al-Assad to give up his authoritarian rule.
This crisis is not the only time where the use of the veto power by one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the United States, China, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom), has stymied human rights efforts.
Background: Syrian Dissidence
Syrian dissent began to emerge in March of 2011, following in the footsteps of other Arab Spring uprisings throughout the Middle East. Beginning with Egypt and Tunisia at the end of last year, the Arab Spring, or the Arab Revolutions, involve civil strikes, demonstrations, rallies, and protests of a multitude of grievances including dictatorship rule, human rights abuses, unemployment, and corruption. In Syria, the movement began in March when protests erupted in major cities. In reaction to the protests, President al-Assad sealed off the city of Deraa after five citizens were reportedly killed by state security forces. The protests continued amid government concessions and reform of the President’s cabinet and high ranking officials, as the President failed to lift an emergency ban on protests and pointed the blame of the deaths on alleged violent participants and foreign influence. The President further cracked the whip and deployed soldiers to take over cities in which the protests continued.
Security forces have continually fired upon protesters and the UN reports that over 2900 citizen protesters have been killed since March. Teachers, civil workers, hospitals and colleges have all been targeted in attempt to squash the protests, including the beheading of a Syrian woman searching a morgue for her activist brother. The protests have continued to grow despite the reactive human rights abuses by the Syrian government. The opposition even created the Syrian National Council, a representative body comprising of 115 different dissident groups.
The sanctions implemented against Syria have crippled its economy, specifically its tourist sect, which has become virtually non-existent. But, the Syrian President holds steadfast and refuses to concede his power. The UN resolution was an attempt at a potential final blow to the President’s unwavering will, but Russia and China have blocked the proposal. In fact, Syrian officials have issued threats of suicidal attacks, claimed to be already in place, on the homelands of any Western nation, which tries to physically interfere with the internal affairs the nation. Similar threats were made to those who choose to recognize the Syrian National Council. Although Russia claims the veto was used to give the Syrian government a last straw ultimatum, the Russian and Chinese vetoes will have the effect of prolonging human rights abuses in Syria.
The Veto Power and its Use During Human Rights Crises:
Article 27 (3) of the UN Charter gives the Security Council P5 members the power to veto any Council resolution. This power arose out of a concern for protecting the major world powers’ sovereignty and a fear of the world powers abstaining from UN participation. The power also causes a threat to resolutions before they are even voted on as the draft of a resolution must also be approved by the P5 and other security councils must often politically concede points in hopes of passing a proposed resolution. Proponents of the veto fear a world without it: the international community would be free to act unpredictably and stomp on the sovereignty of nations. But this criticism ignores the fact that the other 10 members of the council are elected and serve only two-year terms. Also, if the veto power was eliminated the resolutions would still only pass with a majority vote. Historically, the predecessor to the UN, the League of Nations, failed, among other reasons, for the lack of permanence and assurance of participation of the main world powers, specifically the then Soviet Union. Both the modern and historical reasons for the veto power are obsolete, yet it has had the unfortunate consequence of delaying the prevention of human rights abuses.
Besides the current situation in Syria, the veto power has thwarted attempts at improving human rights in Burma, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Zimbabwe, Kosovo, and Rwanda, among others. In 2007, China and Russia also vetoed a resolution, which sought to release thousands of political prisoners, stop the use of sex as a tactic of suppression, and slowly implement democratic reforms. Although the Burmese Military Junta held power since 1962 and perpetuated such abuses since, China and Russia felt the UN had no say in the internal affairs of the country and it did not pose a direct threat to world peace. It is important to note that the resolution managed a majority of votes from the Council at the time. Also, the U.S. has continually used its veto powers to prevent investigation into alleged human rights abuses occurring in the contested areas of Palestine and Israel. For example, in 2001, the U.S. vetoed a resolution, which sought to deploy un-armed, neutral monitors to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which were then occupied by Israel. Despite reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the U.S. refused to abstain or vote in favor of the proposed resolution for a neutral investigation because of biased politics. China and Russia also vetoed a resolution proposing sanctions on Zimbabwe for their human rights abuses in 2008. Lastly, the threat of a veto has also been cited as the cause behind the inaction of the Council during the genocides in Sudan, Darfur, and Rwanda. It has been a common theme that the world often regrets its inaction after the fact, and yet the veto power persists.
Eliminating the Veto:
The veto power has often been criticized and many have proposed alternatives to it, and even supported its destruction. The veto represents an old, arbitrary, and unfair imbalance of power, which exists only because of the way in which the UN was formed. The world powers following World War II knew their presence was necessary and was offered permanent placement on the council, along with the veto power, as a result. Some argue the 1950 UN General Assembly resolution, “Uniting for Peace,” which grants the immediate review of matters in which one of the five members exercised their veto power. Uniting for Peace has been claimed to fix the veto problem, but it has been used only 10 times, causing most proposed Security Council resolutions to die when vetoed never to be resuscitated.
Unfortunately, the veto power has yet to be eliminated, most likely due to the incredibly difficult procedural obstacle to do so. The Security Council can only be reformed by a UN Charter Amendment, which requires a 2/3 super-majority vote of all members of the UN, including all P5 members. The P5 members have the power to veto the elimination of their own veto power, an unlikely scenario. It seems as though only outside pressure and influence could be the only hope to overcome the difficult hurdle to lessening the significance of the veto power. The delay in and lack of action against human rights abuses begs for a reevaluation of the Security Council, which is most recently evidenced by the situation in Syria. This is not a new idea, but one that deserves reconsideration as protesters and civilians in Syria are persecuted by their strong hand government.
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