UN - moral imperative or waste of space?
In the days since Russia and China chose to veto a UN Security Council resolution deploring the Syrian regime’s butchery of vast swathes of its civilian population, there can be no doubt that the violence has significantly escalated, particularly in the city of Homs and the surrounding areas (though that is not to detract from the atrocities that have also been visited upon the populations of Damascus and Hama, amongst others). Thirty years on from Hafez al-Assad’s brutal crackdown on around 40,000 Syrian protestors in 1982, his son, Bashar, has been unremitting in his quest to purge the country of all opposition to his government and to reinforce the Ba’athist ideology that characterises his administration. Thousands have already died, leaving those who continue in vain to strike back to wonder why, in contrast with Libya, the world has forsaken them.
Western denunciation has been plentiful, and nowhere more so than in the United Kingdom. William Hague has long called for multilateral action in the form of sanctions, whilst both the United States and French governments have expressed their desire to see al-Assad step down. The US has even gone as far as to close its Syrian embassy, whilst Britain has recalled its ambassador from Damascus. The message from the West is clear: diplomatic engagement with a regime that is unwavering in its determination to cling on to power at any cost is futile. It was hoped, though, that stern intergovernmental condemnation via the United Nations would have the desired effect.
The reality, as is so often the case with the UN, was rather different. Despite the proposed UN resolution constituting an Arab peace plan and an explicit call for al-Assad to step down, China and Russia both exercised their veto and thereby killed the latest attempt by nations from across the world to come together to reach an acceptable solution to the Syrian question. Whereas Russia averred that it would prefer to see an Arab solution and is sceptical of a Western-backed resolution, China has been decidedly mute. But regardless of the rationale offered, the fact remains that by vetoing a resolution which sought only to condemn (there was no clause to which the West could appeal in attempting to justify invading Syria, nor was there any incitement to taking up arms), these two nations have ensured that Assad’s systematic campaign to excise all who dare to stand up to the state is free to continue without censure.
William Hague’s statement to the Commons on Monday condemned Russia and China for their 'betrayal of the Syrian people', and he is unequivocally correct. If anything, he is understating the consequences of their actions. But this veto also has wider implications: once again the UN’s inability to act raises questions about its utility. If the UN is unable even to condemn a ruler for turning a nation’s army on its (largely) unarmed population, what is the use in even having any such intergovernmental organisation?
Since its inception in 1945 the UN has upheld the laudable goal of achieving peace, albeit with varying levels of success. Its role in bringing about stability in the Balkans throughout the 1990s was invaluable, as is its role in promoting fundamental human rights in some of the world’s most oppressive nations. However its failure to act in countries such as Rwanda and Zimbabwe has long been viewed by many as evidence of the inherent ineffectiveness of an institution that is habitually held to ransom by nations either seeking to protect vested interests or – as is more often the case with Russia and China – seeking to avoid shining a spotlight on failures of which they too are culpable. Of course, it is necessary to point out that these two nations are not alone in exercising the veto; the United States used its first ever Security Council veto in 1970 in defence of Britain’s right to continue to buttress a white minority government in southern Rhodesia, whilst it has also made frequent use of its veto on behalf of Israel. It is simply necessary to understand that the UNSC veto has the capacity to debilitate the UN’s role as an arbiter of peace.
However in spite of this, the version of the UN that presently exists is still better than nothing for one crucial reason: it provides an impartial home for moral authority.
The power to intervene in the affairs of a sovereign state presently rests – albeit imperfectly – with the United Nations. When countries come together and unanimously denounce the behaviour of a rogue nation state for its failure to adhere to those principles of justice to which it assented upon joining the UN, most would agree that the legitimacy to intervene (be it economically or militarily) does exist. There are those who disagree, often taking liberal philosophical concepts and grossly misapplying them to the field of international relations. Some, for instance, point to the great John Stuart Mill’s argument that 'self-regarding' behaviour, even when it causes harm, is permissible. In other words, people are free to do as they wish to themselves without impressing a moral obligation upon others to intervene. It is the contention of some that, by extension, intervention in the internal affairs of a state – seen as a self-regarding entity – is therefore also entirely impermissible.
But states are not individuals; the metaphor falls short because the scope within nation states for groups of individuals to hold power over others and to oversee horrific human rights abuses is not a phenomenon present in individual human beings. When al-Assad orders the Syrian military to open fire on peaceful protests his actions are 'self-regarding' only in that he is prepared to go to any lengths to achieve self-preservation.
The intention of this Realist misappropriation of a philosophical principle is intended to explain why nations should free to act as they choose is mistaken. Besides, it is not always necessary for the United Nations to act – often its mere presence is enough to provide some order to the chaos which characterises international relations if left untouched. That states nearly always seek UN approval before acting is demonstrative of the significant moral authority held by the institution in spite of its apparent shortcomings. Whereas Realism denounces intergovernmental organisations as worthless because states are self-interested and therefore incapable of working together in an anarchic world order, the United Nations routinely prevents the full (and hugely damaging) effects of this self-interest from being realised.
But where does this all leave Syria?
If the United Nations ceased to exist, this moral authority would partition amongst those nation states with the largest militaries and the greatest political sway; in the absence of a common conception of ‘good’ upheld by signatories to a common charter, these nations would be far more ready to act unilaterally and in their own interest. The threat of co-ordinated sanctions or, in some cases, direct intervention, is precisely what forces nations to adhere (at least to some extent) to international norms. If the West were to intervene in Syria without UN approval, they could hardly admonish Iran if it chooses to do so as well. China and Russia’s vetoes are regrettable, and certainly expose the frustrating impotency of intergovernmental organisations when urgency is truly required, but the consequences of a world without the United Nations represent a far more worrying proposition. An Arab League resolution would not represent anything near as effective as one with the backing of the entire world, but it is perhaps the best the Syrians can hope for.