Restraining Order: Dampening Enthusiasm for the Use of the Veto on Atrocity Crimes

30 Oct

One of the trendy ideas floating around the UN system as we continue to wrestle with the implications of Syria refers to veto restraint – that is, pushing hard for permanent Council members (P-5) to voluntarily refrain from the use of the veto in situations where there has been a clear finding of existing or immanent atrocity crimes.

The idea seems simple enough on its face and, in most instances, reflects a sincere desire to make the UN more responsive and accountable to the horrifying violence that state and non-state actors have inflicted and are inflicting on civilian populations.  Once P-5 members commit to even the possibility of veto restraint, it then becomes possible to put pressure on these states in situations like Syria where atrocities threaten and where there are equally obvious geo-political impediments to Council achievement of consensus on coercive remedies.

The ability to exert such pressure would be welcome news for civil society and many non-Council states. As we and others have noted to senior UN officials, whether we like it or not and whether it is entirely fair or not, many in the world judge the UN by how quickly and effectively it can respond to the violence in Syria and elsewhere that fills our computer screens and televisions with often horrific images. It is possible that restraint of veto could lead to timely, life-saving interventions in certain instances.

Indeed, the need for the UN to ‘do something’ in such instances comes from a place that is politically and psychologically complex but largely based on a canon of responsibility.  Diplomats and UN officials have some sense of how deep the public longing is for that time when the threat of mass atrocity crimes can finally be laid to rest. And we know that the closer such violence comes to families and communities with which we have a living connection, the more that frustration and impatience is likely to grow.   As well it should.

That said, we have questions about how well the idea of veto restraint would play in a highly politicized environment such as the UN, an environment filled with good and dedicated people running a gauntlet of states interests largely generated from outside New York and playing on a field which, if anything, is heavily tilted in favor of certain states and their own political interests.

There are two essential conditions for a successful policy to restrain the use of the veto – sufficient de-politicized, evidence-based concern (political will) to protect lives, and the right (and fairly engaged) blend of institutional capacities and contexts.   While veto restraint may indeed increase functionality of those politically inclined to ‘do something’ of either a coercive or protective nature, it does not help to address more fundamental issues that continue to bog down the UN system.   Indeed, it may well be, for instance, that the UN turns out not always the place to manage atrocity crime response.   If the UN is going to maintain a central role in such response, the next phase in atrocity crime prevention might well see the Council authorizing regional actors rather than managing responses itself.   It may also be, indeed it should be, that in this next phase the Council will forge closer relationships with UN agencies, including and especially the Joint Office on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect.  Such relationships could help the Council to be seized of difficult circumstances at earlier (preventive) stages, but would also commit the Council to do more to encourage the development of less coercive options for response that can head off atrocities long before the missiles begin to fly.

The idea of veto restraint comes from a good place, but it is also largely a concession to a system that in fact has not yet found a reliable formula for effective prevention and which has exercised little ‘restraint’ when it comes to maintaining political and power divisions that are largely opaque to all but those who spend lots of time sitting and watching in UN conference rooms.

Many of those seeking ‘veto restraint’ are inclined to support the policies of the so-called P-3, all of which are NATO members and all of which sought coercive response in Syria if not for the concerns of China and especially Russia.  And indeed, If Russia and China had exercised veto restraint given what was, in the beginning at least, a clear example of a state inflicting grave violence on its own citizens, it might have eased the path towards more coercive engagements with such violence.  But would this lead to a less politicized Council regarding its attention to mass atrocity warnings, let alone the implementation of the full complement of its security responsibilities?  Would it lead to greater levels of commitment to develop and fund viable, robust preventive capacities that can simultaneously resolve tensions that trigger violence while preserving vestiges of sovereignty? Would it guarantee a less politicized engagement with findings by UN offices and UN member states of conditions ripe for the evolution of mass atrocities?   Would it help build durable, complementary relationships with regional authorities and capacities?  Would it help create viable, coercive implementation options to NATO, an organization which remains as a primary security competitor for two of the permanent Council members? Would it help states clinging to relevance in a Council overwhelmingly dominated by the “P3” find ways to ‘check’ that influence without offering up civilians to sacrifice in the process?   These are just some of the difficult institutional questions which veto restraint raises and which must be addressed soberly if the drive for such restraint is to avoid being the latest in a series of fads, albeit born of legitimate frustration, to make the UN a more relevant actor on the challenging path towards ‘never again.’

In our view, if proposals for veto restraint are to maintain both momentum and merit, they need to be grounded in a more sophisticated package of reforms such as those proposed by the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT) group chaired by Switzerland.   Veto restraint must not be seen as a stand-alone measure, but one that is tied directly to the functionality of the UN’s preventive mechanisms, levels of fairness and equity within the Council, and other considerations.    It is, like all other operations and activities, tied to a particular institution and its own contexts.  The more that the veto restraint advocates understand the system in which vetoes occur and the implications of such reform for member state conduct, including that of permanent Council members, the more likely they are to find success.

On Syria, it is perhaps too simple a matter to lay blame for the ongoing violence solely on Russian vetoes.   There were unheeded warnings, foot dragging over definitions, and geopolitical alliances that were resistant to amendment.  It will take scholars some time to sort out all of the angles and implications of this tragedy, including its relationship to earlier situations in Libya and elsewhere. Though we all wished for a decisive remedy for Syria with full justice for victims, the many complications of a conflict that evolved before our eyes — from an atrocity crime to an amoral and equally messy civil war– have long been evident.

We have all taken a ‘hit’ to our credibility and our humanity on this one.   It might be many years before we make even token gestures of justice to the millions who have been victimized by this conflict.   It seems clear to us that if the UN is to remain at the forefront of atrocity crime response, we need more than veto restraint just as we need more than impassioned speeches from Council members ready to roll out the fighter jets but not fight as hard themselves to resolve conflicts earlier and with less coercion.  Those who support restraint, and we are among them, are urged to invest energy as well in examination of other security policies and participation in ongoing reform efforts regarding the institutional structures responsible for enacting those policies.

Dr. Robert Zuber

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