Renewing Vows: The Security Council’s Marriage of Convenience, Dr. Robert Zuber

28 Feb

Last Monday, under China’s presidency, the UN Security Council held a most welcome general debate inviting states to “reflect on history and reaffirm the strong commitment to the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” Representation in the room was quite robust with a number of Foreign Ministers having made the trip to New York to reflect on their national responsibilities to the UN’s multi-lateral framework.

The debate itself was a mixed bag as one might expect.  Some states used the occasion to recommit to what they understood to be the core principles of the UN Charter.  Others took advantage of the opportunity to remind the Council that, in the eyes of some states, the current system of maintaining peace and security is still uneven, unrepresentative, even politically biased. Still others used the occasion to point fingers at states (mostly at Russia on Ukraine) that they believed were gravely undermining the most important of Charter principles.

A few states were even in the mood to talk a bit of reform. One of the ideas raised by several delegations, including some Council members, was in support of the French proposal for ‘voluntary restraint’ on the use of the veto in cases where mass atrocities have been determined. This idea has been growing in popularity, especially among certain NGOs focusing on atrocity crime response.

We have written about this idea previously and mostly cautiously.   In our view, there are conditions for such voluntary restraint that should be honored if the proposed change is to solve more problems than it creates.   The primary conditions for restraint are a more horizontal Council power structure that is less inclined to ‘politicize’ findings from UN officials tasked with monitoring the potential for mass violence. There is also need for greater Council willingness to “work and play” better with other UN agencies responsible for diverse aspects of violence prevention.

While listening to the Charter debate, another wrinkle on “conditionalities” came to mind.  This ‘condition’ was courtesy of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of New Zealand, a delegation that we greatly respect but where, in this instance, there seemed to be an attempt to ‘pair off’ two principles that probably need a bit more time to sort out their individual business.

For New Zealand (as for Spain and others) priorities were joined that really don’t seem ready to ‘marry’ each other, despite pressure from the relatives.  The most welcome priority is to get the Council more involved in supporting other UN efforts focused on the preventive side of conflict – heeding early warning and working more closely with other UN capacities devoted to mediation and other preventive tools.  The other is related to veto restraint, which is touted as a solution to difficult, “gridlock” situations like Syria and comes from an urgent desire both to save lives and to protect the reputation of the UN and its partner institutions.

Unfortunately, the discussion on restraint comes attached neither to carefully verbalized conditions nor to a helpful overview of the Council’s coercive measures now underway despite the presence of the veto in a manner, perhaps unfortunately if not inconveniently, consistent with the Charter.

For instance, the current “lack” of veto restraint has not impeded what a number of states see as the Council’s over-reliance on coercive peacekeeping operations to solve international problems. It did not prevent the ongoing carnage in Libya traceable in part to implementation of SCR 1973.  It has not prevented the (mostly ineffective to date) bombing raids against ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq, nor the imposition of US/EU sanctions against Russia.  It has not impeded French military exercises in support of threatened governments in Mali or CAR.  It has not prevented Council endorsement of the still-somewhat-dubious Force Intervention Brigade in the DRC.

Indeed, if there are lessons to be learned here, it is that the veto is used relatively sparingly (though it is threatened more often), and that it is generally used (or threatened) in the most coercive contexts – sanctions and militarized responses.   Spain’s important messaging on mediation capacity might be insufficiently heeded, but it is not vetoed.  Early warnings from the Joint Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect might be tossed into a metaphorical drawer until a full-blown crisis erupts, but neither are these findings candidates for veto.

And it is not at all clear to us, in a situation characterized by voluntary veto restraint, how the Council’s actions on Syria (the poster child for such restraint) would be so very different.   What would the Council be advocating now on Syria that is distinguishable from its current practice?  How much of that ‘difference’ would be military in nature?  And why do we think that military activity directed at Syria would produce peace and security outcomes less like Libya and more like Sierra Leone?  If these questions have answers, they would help make the case for veto restraint.  If they cannot be answered then we should be careful advocating a step that might well satisfy our need to ‘do something’ more than it clarifies what needs to be done, when action is needed, and how we should respond.

During Monday’s Charter debate, the US made what might have been a ‘slip’ during its statement, though it was a telling one – citing the Council’s ‘restoration’ responsibility alongside its maintenance function.   ‘Restoration’ of course is not specifically a Charter-mandated activity of the Council, though the term accurately describes much of current Council practice – fighting raging fires while accusing other states of ‘arson,’ rather than responding in a timely manner to smoke warnings.   We recognize that much about any Council assessment is related to our own expectations; how we judge is in large measure a function of our assessment of capability and culpability.   But we feel that the amount of institutional energy put into ‘restoration’ of conflict settings that the UN system could surely have done more to prevent in the first instance is a most sobering thought, one that, in our view, does not yet recommend veto restraint.

Our fear is that, without addressing the larger concerns related to Council working methods, veto restraint represents permission for downstream “business as usual” to continue or even grow.   Indeed, there is reason to believe that the preventive architecture that the New Zealand Foreign Minister rightly advocated would become even less likely in situations where the international community, and specifically its permanent members, didn’t have to make their full (and hopefully even non-political) case for recourse to coercive measures.

Despite some welcome changes in transparency, in large part motivated through more vigorous involvement by non-permanent members, an ‘unrestrained’ Council still acts too often (and too coercively) without sufficient discernment regarding longer-term security implications or the need for engaged consultations with its many UN partners.  We aren’t anxious to have those temptations magnified.

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