The tenth anniversary of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine has prompted several reflections, including the The Stanley Foundation’s R2P: The Next Decade Conference in New York City this week, examining the future of the concept. In doing so, it’s impossible to not have all eyes turn towards Syria, wondering what, if anything, is to be done to protect the civilian population from the Bashar al-Assad government’s rampage.
An idea that I saw tossed around on Twitter as I followed the debate was one that I hadn’t considered in-depth: using the Uniting for Peace concept, based
on UN General Assembly resolution 337 (A), to circumvent the deadlocked Security Council. I can see why the idea would have appeal; Russia introduced the third version of its draft resolution on Syria to the Council this week, a version that has rejected all of the suggestions by the Western powers as having “emasculated” the text.
Dodging the veto of Russia and China on a strong resolution on Syria in the General Assembly would be a dream come true for activists impassioned about Syria. And the General Assembly has previously come out against the regime, passing a resolution condemning Syria’s human rights abuses and compelling it to adhere to the Arab League’s provisions by a substantial margin. So why not bring up a new resolution, under the auspices of R2P and Uniting for Peace, to push for tough measures on Damascus?
Well, there are several reasons. The first of which is that there’s precisely no chance that the P-3 of note in the above tweet, the United States, United Kingdom, and France, would support such a move. All three have come out against the Assad government’s violence and all three have said that he needs to step down from ruling Syria. However, all three value their power in the United Nations Security Council far more. The circumvention of the veto-power is a touchy subject for these three states.
This is the very reason why you don’t see the Uniting for Peace option used as much as it was when first introduced. During the early 1950s, the vast majority of the General Assembly was composed of states from Latin America and Europe, states that were close allies of the United States. This was only fitting as the UN started out as a war-time alliance. As decolonization swept the globe, however, and more new states from Africa and Asia joined the Assembly, the US lost its strong majority, and with it its ability to easily pass any action it wanted through without a struggle.
Further, the concept is on shaky legal ground to begin with. The UN Charter does provide some small stake in the maintenance of international peace and security to the General Assembly, but the organ charged primarily with that function is the Security Council. The Assembly’s powers under Chapter IV are also phrased in such a way that compliance by member-states is not mandatory. Put another way, General Assembly resolutions are non-binding recommendations, unlike Council resolutions which carry the full weight of international law. To claim that any action taken under Uniting for Peace would be binding to states, including Syria, is counter to facts.
What’s more, any resolution tabled dealing with Syria as a breach of the Responsibility to Protect would necessarily be one dealing with international peace and security. Under Article 18 of the Charter, such matters are deemed an “Important Question” and require a two-thirds vote to pass. Depending on the severity of the provisions tabled, it is unlikely that two-thirds of the GA will be willing to vote for measures that would actually affect the situation on the ground in Syria. The two-thirds threshold would be particularly difficult to meet as the P-3 will surely be quietly working behind the scenes to keep a vote from coming to the floor to begin with.
Even if the Important Question provision is overcome, the fact remains that the resolution would still be entirely based on recommendations. As such, there would be no legally credible enforcement mechanism in place to compel those states that voted against the measures to enact them. In the event that even such moderate measures as an exact duplication of the embargoes placed on Damascus by the League of Arab States, there would be nothing stopping trade with Syria by states who want to. And as an arms embargo, of the type that would actually affect the Syrian governments ability to kill civilians, would be unenforceable, Russia can continue selling its wares unabated. No country’s navy is going to want to board a Russian ship in what may be an illegal embargo.
The idea was also breached that rather than shooting for strong measures, at the very least an Emergency Session of the General Assembly can be called under Uniting for Peace, to get the crisis in Syria under more urgent discussion. This would be a strong show of will by the international community, it could be argued, to show that Syria’s misdeeds are not going on unnoticed. The only problem is that without firm action to accompany such a session, it would be an empty victory. It would in fact be counter to the goals of the callers, as it would first show that the international community has no real plan of action towards Syria, which could prompt a surge in violence. An Emergency Session would, instead of showing resolve, cast the United Nations as weak and inept, surely the last thing the organization needs.
In situations like the one in Syria, it’s easy to ask “What can be done? Why is nothing being done?”, especially in the context of R2P. The United Nations in particular is being targeted as not moving swiftly enough to contain the crisis, but it’s easy to forget that the UN is, and always has been, a collection of member states. The General Assembly has acted strongly to condemn Syria, but it will not be the forum that will provide the end to violence there.