Born in the aftermath of World Wars I & II, the United Nations is undisputedly the most admirable experiment ever conceived to ensure international peace and security. Its one of the principal bodies, the Security Council, as assigned by the Charter, the embodiment of internationally-accepted but not always adhered to norms and principles guiding international relations, is tasked to maintain peace and security.
All the member states of the UN have assumed solemn obligations to abide by the Charter provisions in their conduct of inter-state relations. Nevertheless, empirical evidence shows that power disparities, cultural disparities, and differing views on how to interpret the rules of the use of force have toppled the UN Security Council in the words of Michael J. Glennon, whose thought-provoking essay “Why the Security Council Failed?” has been carried by Foreign Affairs (May-June, 2003).
The most recent example of Syrian crisis and its handling by the UN as reflected in February 4, 2012 Security Council vote killing the resolution designed to resolve the ongoing impasse seems to lend a credence to the above conclusion of Michael J. Glennon. Some commentators disagree with him on this score.
It has been recognized that geopolitics has influenced the attitude of the more powerful countries vis-à-vis their policies regarding the Syrian imbroglio, which has of late been turning to be a protracted war, about which the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has recently expressed alarm, where more than 8000 Syrian lives have already been perished since crisis erupted about a year ago.
Against the backdrop of the Libyan intervention endorsed by UN Security Council resolution 1973 (March 17, 2011) in which some proponents of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle have displayed disappointment for NATO’s bypassing the mandate of the above resolution, a debate has revived whether UN Charter’s use-of force rules have been enforced uniformly. While Libya was subjected to the imposition of no-fly-zone in order to force its regime to submit to the oppositional demands of political freedom invoking the controversial norm of R2P, the same world community has failed to gather necessary support to do likewise in Syria.
But some rays of hope have been visible in the issuance of a presidential statement from the 15-member UN Security Council on March 22, 2012 in which it has expressed its “gravest concern at the deteriorating situation in Syria, which has resulted in a serious human rights crisis and a deplorable humanitarian situation” despite the council’s paralysis prompted by the Chinese and the Russian vetoes of a resolution condemning the Syrian regime.
Compared to what the international community did to Libya last year in resolving the problem similar to what we have been seeing in Syria, the current response does not follow the previous example. This reality evidences the role geopolitics plays on a country’s dealing with the issue of the use of force even through the legitimate channel of the UN Charter. Here the wise opinion of Harvard professor Joseph S. Nye Jr. becomes no less relevant, who writes in his most recent book “Future of Power” that “the U.S. expected some 10000 casualties when it planned to enter the Gulf War in 1990, but it was loath to accept casualties in Somalia and Kosovo, where its national interests were less deeply involved”.
Michael J. Glennon argues that “Although the UN’s rules purport to represent a single global view-indeed, universal law-on when and where force can be justified, the UN members are clearly not in agreement.”
Analysts are now recalling the tragedies of Rwanda (1994) and Bosnia (1995), which they believe occurred solely because of international inaction. Why was there lack of prompt action to halt genocide in Rwanda? What prevented the powerful members of the UN Security Council from agreeing on a resolution permitting enforcement action as warranted by the situation on the ground? Why couldn’t the big powers agree to bolster the beleaguered Dutch peacekeepers, who were constrained to provide security to the Bosnian Muslims in the UN-protected areas in Srebrenica? These are some of the questions that demand convincing answers but have not been presented as yet.
In his classic “Future of Power”, Harvard professor Joseph S. Nye Jr. presents a comparative thinking among the Americans, who claim global dominance and the Europeans, particularly two permanent members of the UN Security Council from Western group i.e. UK and France, which clashed with the U.S. at the Security Council on the issue of authorizing force against Iraq in 2002-03. Professor Nye explains that “Americans tend to see any source of democratic legitimacy higher than the nation-state but Europeans see democratic legitimacy as flowing from the will of the international community. Thus they comfortably submit to impingements on their sovereignty that American would find anathema. Security Council decisions limiting the use of force are but one example.”
Taking a cue from 2003 Iraqi crisis, Michael J. Glennon concluds that disagreement over Iraq (whether to coerce it to remove the weapons of mass destruction) did not doom the council; geopolitical reality did. To him the extraordinary declaration of November 10, 2002 made by then U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell that “the U.S. would not consider itself bound by the council’s decisions-even though it expected Iraq to be declared (by the UN) “in material breach” reflects the selective approach of a big power like America.
The disparities encountered in using the UN in defense of global norms and principles nevertheless, no viable alternative exists to this body however imperfect it might have been proved. This is exactly the reason Javier Solana, a former Spanish Minister (1992-95) and Secretary-General of NATO (1995-99) has said in his recent commentary “Whose Sovereignty” that today’s complex and interdependent world needs an organization of states and structures of governance oriented towards responsible dialogue. At present the UN fits in this definition although clamors for its reform have become louder in the recent days.