Syria constituted, last week, a source of great friction in the Security Council. Russia cast its veto on a resolution regarding action against Syria’s leader al-Assad following use of chemical weapons by the regime.
Last week, the UN Security Council once again met to vote on a resolution dealing with the civil war in Syria. The situation changed last week with yet another attack with chemical weapons by the Syrian regime against its population. Even American president Trump changed his administration’s stance on Syria’s al-Assad following the attack, from being unwilling to intervene in the conflict, to launching 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at an army airfield outside Damascus.
The resolution put forward by the United States, the United Kingdom and France based on observations of OPCW (Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons), was to punish al-Assad for breaching the resolution 2118 (from 2013) where al-Assad were to destroy all his stockpiles of chemical weapons. However, the resolution did not pass this time either. The Russian envoy to the UN argued that the resolution “failed to serve any useful purpose.” This decision attracted criticism from fellow UN members such as Ukraine.
This is the eighth time Russia has cast its veto to protect Syria’s leader al-Assad from UN action. The use of the veto and Russia’s desire to keep al-Assad in his place has paralyzed the UN from acting, and constitutes a tragedy for the Syrian people.
Reports from Amnesty and Human Rights Watch in the last weeks tell of crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by the Syrian government against oppositional rebels and civilians, but the government are unlikely to face repercussions, thanks to the protection of Russia’s veto.
On the 7th of February, Amnesty released a report detailing the extrajudicial executions by hanging carried out by the Syrian government at Saydnaya Prison. Between 2011 and 2015, groups of 50 people were hanged once or twice a week. As many as 13 000 people may have died at Saydnaya Prison in this manner, most of them civilians opposed to the government. The report also details the use of torture and systematic deprevation of food, water, medicine and medical care, creating inhuman conditions for the prisoners.
The following week, Human Rights Watch released a report showing that Syrian government forces used chemical weapons in the final weeks of the campaign to retake Aleppo from rebels. The report shows that helicopters dropped chlorine in residential areas on at least eight occasions in November and December 2016. The attacks took place in areas where government forces were planning to advance, indicated that they were part of the military strategy to retake Aleppo and not carried out by rogue elements. At least nine civilians, including four children, died from the attacks, and more than 200 were injured.
These reports clearly show that crimes against humanity and war crimes are being committed by the Syrian government. However, those responsible are unlikely to face repercussions. Syria is not a state party to the International Criminal Court. Therefore, a decision by the United Nations Security Council to refer the situation to the court is necessary for it to investigate the situation. On a number of occasions, Russia has used its veto to block such a referral, and that is likely to happen again if a draft resolution is put forward.
Before Christmas, the United Nations General Assembly established an investigative body to collect, consolidate, preserve, and analyze evidence of war crimes and human rights abuses in Syria, in preparation for future criminal proceedings. Such criminal proceedings are unlikely to be initiated in the near future, but may be possible at some time in the future. Until then, Syrian civilians continue to suffer the crimes their government is committing.
On Monday the 5th of December, a draft resolution calling for a cessation of hostilities in Aleppo was vetoed by Russia and China. This was the sixth draft resolution concerning Syria that has been vetoed since the beginning of the conflict in 2011. Meanwhile, a military victory in Aleppo for the Syrian government forces is looking imminent.
The draft resolution, introduced by Egypt, Spain and New Zealand, called for a week-long cessation of hostilities against all actors, including those designated terrorist groups, in Aleppo and demanded immediate safe access to all areas of the city for humanitarian assistance. The draft resolution also called for a ceasefire in the rest of Syria, but allowed for ongoing operations against terrorist groups.
Vitaly Churkin, representing Russia at the Security Council, claimed that the vote had been rushed, and that member states had not been given the customary 24-hour period to consider the final wording of the text. Furthermore, Churkin claimed that the resolution ignored and undermined ongoing negotiations between Russia and the United States on withdrawal of fighters from Aleppo and humanitarian relief, and that a ceasefire would only allow fighters to reinforce their positions and prolong the conflict. Liu Jieyi, the Chinese representative, stressed that council action should complement current diplomatic effort and that more intensive efforts to forge a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political process were needed, adding that efforts to reach consensus in the Security Council should have continued. Venezuela also voted against the draft resolution, with Angola abstaining.
The positions of Russia and China drew heavy criticism from other Council members, with the United Kingdom’s Matthew Rycroft dismissing Russia’s arguments as hackneyed and Michele Sisson, the United States’ deputy representative to the UN , accusing Russia of protecting its military gains. The atmosphere in the Security Council on this issue is uncooperative, to say the least.
On the ground in Aleppo, Syrian government forces are reported to have recaptured 75% of the previously rebel-controlled areas in the eastern parts of the city in the last weeks. Over 100 000 civilians are believed to still be under siege without access to food and medicine in areas still controlled by the rebels. According to Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, Syria’s army has suspended combat operations in the area to allow evacuation of civilians, but reports from the ground indicate that the fighting is still on-going, although somewhat eased.
As civilians continue to die in Aleppo, the Security Council has resorted to debate the fairness of reports of the humanitarian situation in the city, as the Russian veto blocks substantive actions. Meanwhile, member states are looking to the General Assembly for a possible way around the Security Council deadlock.
“Our generation’s shame” – that is how the UN humanitarian chief, Stephen O’Brien, described the Security Council’s inability to act on the humanitarian disaster in today’s Aleppo. During a meeting in New York, O’Brien criticized representative envoys from the Security Council’s member states. He stressed that Aleppo has become a “kill zone”, and the critique was indeed blistering: “If you don’t take action, there will be no Syrian peoples or Syria to save – that will be this council’s legacy, our generation’s shame”.
O’Brien’s attack on the Security Council’s inability to act, and the bombings conducted by Russia and the Syrian regime, failed to spark action, but instead led to more debate and squabbling among the council’s two main camps; Russia and China on one side, and France, the United Kingdom and the United States on the other. The Russian ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, stated that O’Brien’s report was “unfair and dishonest”, something which caused great debate between the other ambassadors. Subsequently, the debate concerned Russian-led bombings of Aleppo, and its unwillingness to submit to negotiations in the Security Council. The Russians were criticized for its “attack on the UN”, and all negotiations stalled.
Once again, the Security Council failed, despite harsh internal criticism, to act at all. Instead they plunged into squabbling over the report by O’Brien. While the Security Council remains deadlocked, many United Nations member states have called for the General Assembly to hold an emergency special session to take action. An informal meeting to discuss the Syrian situation was held on the initiative of Canada and 70 other member states on the 20th of October. Whether an emergency special session will be convened in the near future, and whether it can lead to substantive action, remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the death tolls in Aleppo continue to increase, and civilians continue to suffer as a result of the Security Council’s veto-induced inaction.
As had been expected, a French-Spanish draft resolution addressing the situation in Syria was vetoed by Russia. The veto means civilians in Aleppo are likely to continue to suffer amidst heavy bombardment by Syrian and Russian aircraft.
On Saturday, France and Spain presented a draft resolution on the situation in Syria to the United Nations Security Council. The resolution called for a cessation of hostilities, the establishment of a military no-fly-zone over Aleppo, unhindered humanitarian access, and holding perpetrators of atrocities accountable.
However, as expected, the veto was vetoed by Russia. The Russian Foreign Ministry claimed the resolution distorted the reality of the situation in Syria, and that a ban on the aerial bombardments would provide cover to terrorists. The reality, that the resolution allegedly distorted, is that about 275 000 civilians are trapped by the siege of eastern Aleppo, suffering through daily bombings of bunker-buster bombs and incendiary weapons and starvation as aid convoys are blocked from entering the city.
“Thanks to your actions today, Syrians will continue to lose their lives in Aleppo and beyond to Russian and Syrian bombing. Please stop now”, Matthew Rycroft, the British Ambassador to the United Nations, told his Russian counterpart Vitaly Churkin.
Russia put forward a rival draft resolution, which constituted a version of the French-Spanish resolution with Russian amendments, such as leaving out the call for a military no-fly-zone. The Russian resolution only gained four votes in favor, well below the requirement of nine votes in favor.
Saturday was the fifth time Russia vetoed a resolution addressing Syria since the beginning of the conflict in 2011. The first four times, the Russian vetoes where joined by China. On Saturday, the Chinese abstained their vote on the French-Spanish resolution, while voting in favor of the Russian resolution.
The privilege of the veto also comes with responsibilities. A United Nations memo, questioning the United Kingdom’s “merits to hold a permanent seat at the Security Council” after its withdrawal of police officers from a peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, has made that clear.
Last week, Reuters reported the existence of an internal UN memo that appears to question the United Kingdom’s right to its veto at the Security Council. The memo comes after the UK, as well as Sweden and Germany, withdrew some of it police officers from a peacekeeping mission in South Sudan amidst heavy fighting in the capital Juba earlier this month.
“The departure of the police officers has affected the operational capability of the mission at headquarters level and has dealt a serious blow to the morale of its peacekeepers” read the memo. It continued to state that the withdrawal “can be considered a lack of respect to their engagement on peace and security” in reference the states that are also on the Security Council, which in this case means the UK with its permanent seat, and Sweden, who were recently elected to serve on the Council during 2017 and 2018.
The memo went on to question the UK’s right to a permanent seat when they themselves do not fulfill their obligations to peace and security in difficult situations: “This also raises the question of their merits to hold a permanent seat at the Security Council and mandating others on how to handle peace and security issues when they themselves are quick to abandon their post in challenging situations.”
The UK withdrew two police officers, Germany seven, and Sweden three, without consulting the United Nations. The memo also reported that the United States were planning to withdraw nine police. The countries will not be allowed to replace the police officers once the situation improves.
Reuters: U.N. memo questions Britain’s Security Council veto power
On the 9th of March, member states of the United Nations were asked to give their opinions on the veto, as the topic was up for discussion during the Intergovernmental Negotiations on Security Council Reform.
“The right to veto is a cornerstone of of the UN Security Council”, Vitaly Churkin, the Russian Permanent Representantive to the United Nations, stated during the Intergovernmental Negotiations (IGN) on Security Council Reform that took place on March 9th. He further claimed that the veto forces member states to compromise to pass resolutions, leading to better and more balanced resolutions, and that without the right to veto, the organisation would make decisions without respect to the legal interests of if its member states.
Other voices were more critical of the veto. Pakistan, while reiterating their opposition to an expansion of permanent seats on the Security Council, stated that the veto should ideally be abolished, but that such proposals would themselves be vetoed, and that they therefore also supported more pragmatic approaches to limiting the use of the veto. A similar position have previously been taken by the Indonesian government.
India, while acknowledging the importance of the veto issue, expressed worry that the controversy of the issue could block reform of the Security Council. “The issue of veto is important but then we cannot also allow the veto to have a veto over the process of Council reform itself,” Syed Akbaruddin, the country’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, said. India also stated that as long as the veto exist, it must be extended to any additional permanent members of the security council that might be added in the future.