Why the UN Isn't Saving Syria

For almost a year, the Syrian government has been violently subduing Syrian citizens protesting the rule of President Bashar al-Assad. Approximately 5,000 people have died through this revolution. Yet, the international community has done little to stop the violence. With the death toll mounting, why is the international community not helping Syria? Moreover, why did two vetoes by Russia and China in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) force the international community to mostly abandon unilateral intervention efforts?

Simply put, the UN values state sovereignty too much. Syria is a UN member state and thus holds soverign rights equal to all other member states, thus intervention would have infringed on these rights. To rectify this problem, the UN should create a judicial review of the UNSC members’ reasons for vetoing, allowing vetoes only if resolutions do not enhance human rights or international peace and security. 

The UN has always been about securing territorial integrity. The UN was designed after World War II to prevent another world war. The creators thought that preserving national interests would prevent another world war.

To protect national integrity, they structured the UN so that state sovereignty became the center of the organization. They gave ultimate power to the Security Council and allowed each of the five permanent members to veto any resolution.

Russia has used the veto many times to secure its sovereignty. Once Russia threatened to veto humanitarian aid to Kosovo. Russia did not want a precedent set to allow military intervention by the UN at its backdoor. Russia thought that protecting Albanian Kosovars from Serbian ethnic cleansing would set a precedent to allow the international community to intervene in Russian human rights abuses. So the power of the veto allowed national interest to become more important than human rights. Kosovars had to wait until NATO intervened.

Like Russia, China also used its veto to halt humanitarian intervention on Myanmar. China successfully stopped the UNSC from taking action on the human rights abuses in Myanmar. China vetoed any resolution to stop mass human rights violations in order to protect China’s economic ties to Myanmar – China’s client state. In this way, the veto prevented the UNSC from protecting human rights. China had authority to veto for any reason.

The UN’s structure essentially secured national sovereignty over enforcing human rights through the veto. In both cases, a member of the UNSC exercised its national sovereignty to override humanitarian protection. Russia’s and China’s vetoes secured their national interest over human rights. Had they gone through judicial reviews for using their vetoes, Russia and China, along with every P5 member, could only use vetoes if resolutions hampered human rights and international peace and security. Such review would create a culture of human rights by prioritizing them over national interest, but the international system does not accommodate for this.

 

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Jacinda Chan

Jacinda graduated from University of California, Berkeley with a dual bachelor's degree in rhetoric and political science. She is currently pursuing a masters in international criminal justice at the University of Portsmouth. She is fluent in German. Since then, she has done various research and writing internships covering Turkish politics at the Diplomatic Courier, writing reports on legal systems in the Middle East, and researching the entire human rights history of Iran and Egypt. At the Levin Institute, she wrote news analysis about human rights in Latin America.

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