What a Difference a Year Makes

The UN passed a resolution on Libya, but not on Syria. Jennifer Welsh explains what has changed in a year.
By: /
February 5, 2012
Professor in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Somerville College

On Feb. 26, 2011, in response to the Gadhafi regime's violent crackdowns against protesters, the United Nations Security Council reached unanimous agreement on a resolution to impose an arms embargo, travel ban and asset freeze against the Libyan authorities, and to refer the killings of civilians to the International Criminal Court.

Yesterday, almost a year later, the council was the scene of tension and discord, rather than consensus. In a show of defiance, Russia and China both exercised their vetoes to block passage of a resolution sponsored by western and Arab states, designed to address the ongoing carnage in Syria (the final vote tally was 13 to two). Amid the recrimination that followed, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice dropped any pretense of diplomatic courtesy and claimed that she was "disgusted" by the Russian and Chinese decision. "For months this Council has been held hostage by a couple of members," she said. "Any further bloodshed that flows will be on their hands." The British permanent representative to New York, Mark Lyall Grant, echoed this sentiment: "Russia and China have turned their backs on the Arab world to support tyranny."


On the face of it, there seemed to be very little in this resolution to justify the controversial step of wielding a veto. The resolution was in many respects mirroring the language of a previous statement by the League of Arab States, and endorsed that body’s efforts to bring about a "Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, plural political system." Earlier drafts of the text had been substantially watered down, stripping from it any calls for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down and any reference to the use of force. Indeed, the draft that was put to a vote went out of its way to clarify that only peaceful measures were being considered, stating that nothing in the resolution authorized measures under Article 42 of the Charter (the section that invokes the council’s powers to mandate force). Russia’s worries about an arms embargo were also assuaged (important for Moscow, as it is the main arms supplier to Damascus), as this measure, too, was also negotiated away.

But two Russian objections remained. First, though the text demanded that all parties in Syria, including armed groups, immediately cease violence, it also explicitly requested that government troops return to their barracks. Second, the resolution failed to identify opposition activists in Syria as partially to blame for the violence and instability. According to Russian Ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, these two elements sent an "unbalanced message" to those inside Syria. This aversion to choosing sides was echoed by the Chinese permanent representative, Li Baodong, who claimed that the draft resolution had put "undue emphasis" on pressuring the Syrian authorities and risked prejudicing the result of any national dialogue. 

So what is going on here? It is difficult to fully explain this showdown in the council without understanding the impact of the council’s second resolution with respect to Libya, Resolution 1973 (passed on March 17, 2011). This resolution, which authorized the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya, did not receive unanimous support from the council - it passed with five abstentions (two of which came from Russia and China). At the time, Russia voiced its preference for a ceasefire and political negotiation, as it worried that any use of military force might make the situation on the ground even worse. China also reluctantly abstained, rather than vetoed, articulating unease about what the real endgame in Libya might be and stressing the importance of respecting Libya’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Hence, while Resolution 1973 received a green light, it was not (as some have suggested) the shining moment in which the international community rallied around the principle of the "responsibility to protect" (R2P). 

Once NATO’s military campaign began, and a no-fly zone to protect civilians morphed into overt assistance for regime change, the muted concerns of these two permanent members of the council turned into full-scale buyers’ remorse. Authorization for a limited mission to protect civilians had been (in their view) illegitimately stretched – under the banner of R2P - to enable the over-throw of the government of a sovereign state. Mindful of this possibility, Russia and China – in collaboration with other skeptical states, such as Brazil and India – have vowed to "never again" provide an opening like that contained in Resolution 1973.  In fact, during the autumn of 2011, the Brazilian delegation to the UN circulated a proposal called "Responsibility while Protecting," which was designed to: emphasize the international community’s non-military options for exercising R2P; limit the recourse to military force as a "last resort" in any crisis; and ensure that those carrying out any council-authorized military mission abide by the strict terms of the mandate (a coded rebuke to NATO). 

Above all, the post-Libya period of "buyers’ remorse" reminded both supporters and skeptics of R2P of exactly what had been agreed to in 2005, when member states endorsed the principle at the anniversary summit of the UN. Article 139 of the Summit Outcome Document does not necessarily create any new rights or duties with respect to R2P. Instead, it identifies the Security Council – and the messy and political dynamics that occur within that body – as "primary" when any coercive actions by the international community to address atrocity crimes are being considered. It also states clearly that the council will consider such situations on a ‘case by case’ basis, and not be guided by any explicit doctrine. In short, it is inevitable – even acceptable? – that the Council will act inconsistently.

The council's stalemate over Syria, then, is telling for three reasons. First, the draft resolution made no mention of R2P. Sensitivities over this principle made it virtually impossible for western states to incorporate such language. While French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe called the recent attack in Homs a "crime against humanity," the Syrian government has managed to convince the Russians and Chinese (and potentially others) that what is occurring inside the country is a battle against foreign-aided insurgents. Even without mention of R2P, the intended purpose of the resolution – to protect civilians – seemed a step too far.

Second, this episode shows that powerful members of the council are not merely uncomfortable with contemplating coercive measures with respect to events in Syria, but are also uncomfortable with any hint of taking sides (even when powerful regional actors are asking them to). The council’s shift away from impartiality, so evident in Côte D’Ivoire and Libya, is being "corrected" by those who see themselves as the guardians of how the UN should approach conflicts inside sovereign states.

The third and final lesson is that states that disagree with this kind of retrenchment are willing to call Russia and China's bluff. It wasn’t clear, even late in the day, whether the draft resolution would be put to a vote. But in the end, western and Arab states took the view that it was better to isolate the opponents of the proposed political process rather than continue to concede on significant points. Though Russian diplomats warned that forcing a vote would lead to a scandal, the German ambassador to the UN, Peter Wittig, retorted that the greater scandal "is not to act." Arguably, it may be better for the legitimacy of the council if spoilers are exposed, and reasons for votes in favour and against are aired in public.

Yes, the council has been sidelined. As the Russian ambassador quipped, it "is not the only diplomatic tool on the planet." But it’s hard to see how a Russian-inspired mediation will have the same level of legitimacy as what the Arab League was contemplating. The question now arises, of course, as to whether there will be further attempts to act through the UN as the crisis continues or whether the supporters of the defeated resolution, in their efforts to ratchet up the pressure on Assad, are willing to act outside it.

Photo courtesy Reuters.