UNSC approval is vital to the use of force – True or False?

On Talk of the Nation today, Anne-Marie Slaughter made the case that should Russia not allow the United Nations Security Council move forward on Syria, the world can act without them. More specifically, she laid out a further explanation of her Atlantic piece on Syrian intervention:

Fourth, the intervention would have to receive the authorization of a majority of the members of the UN Security Council — Russia, actively arming Assad, will probably never go along, no matter how necessary — as an exercise of the responsibility to protect doctrine, with clear limits to how and against whom force could be used built into the resolution.

During the NPR interview, according to Twitter, Slaughter clarified that a “supermajority” of states on the Council must vote in favor of intervention for the international community to act without a resolution in their favor due to the veto of a permanent member. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to listen to the interview yet, so I’m unsure about whether she was speaking in reference to the draft resolution currently on the table, as introduced by Morocco, or if she means a hypothetical resolution under Chapter VII.

No matter the context, I had trouble with this when she first published the article, and I’m having even more issues with it now. The backbone of Professor Slaughter’s argument, and that of other interventionists, is that action in Syria is required to support the developing norms of the international community, namely the Responsibility to Protect. The problem with this is that in promoting the advancement of this norm, it would seem that going around codified international law would be required to do so. I am most certainly not an international law expert, but it would seem to me that codified laws take precedence over norms, particularly when a great deal of weight has traditionally applied to the approval of the United Nations Security Council to take action.

Great Power politics are undeniably a mess, particularly in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. I’ve argued previously that I don’t believe that acting without the Security Council in practice is an ideal solution. Dodging the Council, though, would also prove to be a failure in principle as well. To actively say that a veto in the Security Council should be ignored seems to weaken the institution as a whole. Many of the same people advocating intervention in Syria screamed bloody murder over the Bush Administration launching strikes into Iraq without an authorizing resolution of the Security Council, due to the vetoes of France, Russia, and China. I should know, I was one of them. But the Bush White House at least had the slim thread of “upholding previous UNSC resolutions” as part of their justification. While nobody bought it, at least the effort was made, and it is true that several UNSC resolutions demanding that Saddam Hussein comply with international demands were passed in the past. Likewise, several chances were given to Milosevic’s Former Republic of Yugoslavia to adhere to the wishes of the Council and cease violence against its civilians; a true exhaustion of options building up to force existed. No such history exists against Syria in the Security Council.

It’s my opinion that if you’re going to say that the rules are bad and unfair, you should at least be consistent with it. The UN Security Council can’t be the end decision point in the use of force only in times where you agree with all 15 members’ views. Come out for a change of the rules governing the body wholesale, instead of claiming they can be circumvented in certain situations. There may well be a moral argument for intervening in Syria, but the idea that it’s any more legal to defy the Council in one situation or another doesn’t hold water. Either the UNSC is the final arbiter of international peace and security or it isn’t. And if it is, then the principles on which it was founded, as anachronistic as they may be in the 21st century are still worthy of consideration.

The fact remains that the veto is, as was devised by the Soviets as a condition for joining the UN in the first place, a tool to protect national interests. Well, at present, it is in Russia’s national interest to not have the West intervene in Syria. If, heaven forbid, the United States were to no longer be the sole superpower, we would certainly expect that in the case of a veto that action not be taken against our interests, a principle that was upheld at the height of the Cold War. I do approve of the idea of getting the Syrian National Council to guarantee Russia access to their current naval base in Syria even after Assad falls; it’s one of the few things keeping them from dropping Assad like a hot potato; Unfortunately, Vitaly Churkin’s threats to no longer protect Assad with the veto seems to have gone unheeded by Damascus, leaving Russia in a position where it may well do what it has hinted at in recent press statements.

I’m not entirely sure if there are even enough “aye” votes for the current draft at present in any case, let alone one authorizing force. The whip count may change after Tuesday’s briefing by the Arab League and the presence of several attendees at the ministerial level. But you can count on at least four abstentions, if not flat-out “no” votes. Is this ten the supermajority that Slaughter references? In any case, a “supermajority” of UNSC member states won’t be enough to override, particularly if the resolution tabled is the one that is up for discussion. The political factors on the table, including a peaceful transition to a unity government, can’t be enacted by force with any semblance of credibility in the face of a veto. Or can you only go around the Security Council when force is on the table? It may be a moot point, as with the lack of sanctions and military factors involved, there’s still a slim chance that Russia abstains, bringing China along with it. But in the event of a veto, the international community needs to decide whether the UNSC is the final arbiter on the use of force as it has long held or an obstacle to be overcome.

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