Tea and Kofi: The Next Month for Syria and the UN

One of the most under appreciated aspects of the UN Security Council is the rotating Presidency of the Council. Under the Provisional Rules, the President of the Security Council serves for a month, before the member that follows under the English alphabet takes over. Running the Council means you get to set the Provisional Agenda for the month, and lay out the course of Council debate for the next four weeks. This especially matters when it comes to handling ongoing crises, as different states take different approaches to the matters before the UNSC.

As of tomorrow morning, Togo hands over the gavel to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. At the end of March, the UK will pass the Presidency to the United States of America. The US and UK always serve back to back, barring the presence of the United Republic of Tanzania on the Council, but I believe the next two months will show a marked change in the presence of the situation in Syria at the horseshoe table. As if to signify its commitment to taking on Damascus head-on, the United Kingdom already has a draft Presidential Statement on deck:

The members of the Security Council express their deep disappointment that Ms. Valerie Amos, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, was not granted authorization to visit Syria by the Syrian Government in a timely manner, despite repeated requests and intense diplomatic contacts aimed at securing Syrian approval.  The members of the Security Council call upon the Syrian authorities to grant the coordinator immediate and unhindered access.

The members of the Security Council deplore the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation, in particular the growing number of affected civilians, the lack of safe access to adequate medical services, and food shortages, particularly in areas affected by fighting and violence such as Homs, Hama, Deraa, Idlib.

The members of the Security Council call upon the Syrian authorities to allow immediate, full and unimpeded access of humanitarian personnel  to all populations in need of assistance, in accordance with international law and guiding principles of humanitarian assistance, and call upon the Syrian government to cooperate fully with the United Nations and relevant humanitarian organizations to facilitate the provision of humanitarian assistance and allow evacuation of the wounded from affected areas.

Presidential Statements don’t have the weight of international law behind them like resolutions do. But due to the fact that they require unanimity to be issued,  they are seen as a firm declaration of the Security Council’s intent to see a situation resolved. This specific text focuses on the need to deploy aid to the most areas hardest hit by Assad’s shelling campaign, which I find to be unlikely to make much of a difference, as its implementation would go against the siege strategy Damascus is employing. Despite this, odds of the draft passing are actually quite high, as China has already stated that Beijing is in favor, in principle, of humanitarian aid to be delivered to Syria, leaving Russia in the position of joining with the rest of the international community, or be alone against delivering medicine to civilians.

Also, London’s taking over at the Security Council makes it more likely that Syria will find a permanent place on the Agenda. As it stands, the situation in Syria has been debated under “The Situation in the Middle East” on the Council’s agenda, a catch-all that includes the Israel-Palestine crisis. Placing “The Situation in Syria” on the Council elevates the issue as being clearly one that negatively affects international peace and security, as why would it be discussed by the Security Council if it didn’t? What’s more, this move can’t be vetoed by Russia and China, as it would be a procedural vote, and nine votes clearly exist for the motion to pass.

As the UK’s draft is set to be tabled, the United States and France are working on a draft resolution to the same effect. I say “working” because the text is still only being circulated to “like-minded countries” for now. I’ve yet to see a copy of the full text, but it looks like al-Arabiya has, even if they aren’t publishing it in its entirety. I’m not sold on the idea of a purely “humanitarian” resolution doing much or going very far in deliberations, as I’ve noted before. The United Nations Security Council is a political body by nature. Even when it resorts to authorizing force under Chapter VII, as Clausewitz said, what is war but an extension of politics? It looks like several Western diplomats agree with me, despite their best efforts:

Russia, U.N. diplomats said, has indicated that it would support a resolution that focuses exclusively on the humanitarian crisis without any mention of the political situation. Arab and Western diplomats, however, say that such a resolution would be unacceptable to them.

While the Brits take over in the Security Council, the General Assembly has pledged to work together with the Arab League to find a negotiated solution to the crisis. Having been tasked to appoint a Special Envoy for the region, much as I predicted, Secretaries-General Ban Ki-Moon of the UN and Nabil al-Araby of the Arab League have drafted the biggest name they could: Kofi Annan. While some may be doubtful of his appointment, the luster that comes from a former head of the United Nations can’t be denied.

Annan visited UN Headquarters today to discuss his new role, his arrival coinciding with UN Under Secretary-General of Humanitarian Affairs Valarie Amos being denied access into Syria. USG Amos’ inability to enter Syria’s border is especially concerning as it makes uncertain the future of Annan’s mission before it even begins. While in the past, Annan has been able to work with President Assad, it’s unsure if the relationship they developed will be able to become exploited to come to a political solution. His mandate, as given by al-Araby and Ban, is a broad one as it pertains to actively engaging all parties in Syria, effectively hoping to channel Annan’s clout with the regime and the ability to interact with the opposition sans bias. As it stands, if a political solution exists, it is much more likely to be brokered by Annan than by Moscow or Beijing.

As we approach the one-year anniversary of protests in Syria, it’s apparent that neither side is set to back down easily, particularly not now that the opposition finds itself awash in arms from neighboring states. At the Security Council this morning, the Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe upped the official total death toll in Syria to 7,500, highlighting the upswing in refugees and internally displaced people, now estimated at 25,000 and 100,000 respectively.

The United Nations, despite calls of ineffectiveness in handling the Syrian crisis, is still knee-deep in attempting to ensure that the violence against civilians comes to a halt, particularly at the Human Rights Council’s 19th Session and through the on the ground work of the UN High Commission for Refugees. In this light, between the United Kingdom running the Security Council for the month of March and Kofi Annan launching his quest for a solution, the next thirty days are sure to be a diplomatic whirlwind placing renewed pressure on Syria, with the United Nations at its center.

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