With UN's Failure to Curb Syria Crack-Down, Has the Security Council Become a Relic of the Past?

The credibility of the United Nations Security Council took a serious tumble with its failure this weekend to pass a resolution condemning the government-led crackdown in Syria. Russia and China, using their power as permanent members of the Council, vetoed the act despite its unanimous approval by the other 13 member states. The Council’s inability to act and build upon the decade’s work in human rights undermines its future legitimacy and viability as an international force to tackle real security crises around the globe. 

As has been the case far too often, for every Libya, there is a Rwanda, Darfur, Burma and now Syria to offset any gains in collective international action against state-led human rights violations. It is estimated that thousands have been killed by the Assad regime in Syria. A question that we must begin to ask: How many deaths must there be before the UN has a responsibility to act?

At the UN World Summit in 2005, member states made an international commitment to protect and, if at all possible, prevent populations from experiencing “crimes against humanity” when the state itself fails to do so. However, the situation in Syria highlights that when the moment of truth appears, the UN Security Council is unable to act until the situation is in dire straits. Take a look at Burma and Darfur, and this analysis has not broached other international security concerns on which that the Council continually drags its feet. 

Despite ideological differences and interests, the primary reason behind its inability to act is its stagnant structure. It has not adapted along with the rest of the international order, but rather, it has kept much of the same structure since its inception in 1946, one designed more for the Cold War atmosphere of the time.  

Many in the international community and President Barack Obama, who publicly endorsed India for a permanent seat on the Council in 2010, have recognized the need for reform. We should not continue to expect an institution that has not evolved to have the ability to solve complex problems within an international community that clearly has. 

Thus, the U.S. should advance its 21st century foreign policy — which relies on diplomacy and the understanding that unilateral action is no longer the most feasible option — by strongly advocating for changes to the U.N. Security Council. Central to that strategy is a reliance on strong and vibrant international governance organizations, such as the Security Council, that can act swiftly on agreed upon aims.

Issues up for debate should include reassessing which states have veto power, the use and ability to override vetoes, and opening the Council up to more members as a way to represent broader world interests.

As long as the Security Council continues to operate under the status quo structural conditions, failures such as the resolution on Syria will continue to occur and its perception as an ineffective and obsolete institution will grow. It is time to help the Council become a strong, vibrant international organization that can effectively tackle today’s complex conflicts. 

Photo Credit: C. K. Hartman

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Joseph Lester

Joseph graduated from Stanford University with a BA in political science and is currently pursing a MA in sociology. He is especially interested in issues of education, social inequality, government transparency and accountability, and electoral politics.

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