‘The deadlock in the Security Council on Syria can be blamed squarely on the overreach of NATO’ is an idea that has been circulating for almost a year now. The missiles that were launched off the coast of Libya gave hope and fear of another intervention in Syria new life, and the United Nations Security Council was sure to take up the concept in a new wave of international interventions. But that never materialized. After each stifling of action against Damascus in the Council, the blame has been placed squarely on Libya. To wit, Joshua Foust has a new piece up, as of yesterday, wherein he takes a harsh look at the Libyan intervention, and sees in it the catalyst for a new paralysis in the Security Council:
From a strategic perspective, Libya has created a roadblock in the UN Security Council. NATO ignored the text of the UN Security Council Resolution that rejected regime change as an outcome of intervention. As a result, now other UNSC members, namely Russia and China, will assume that any future moves to invoke the UN to safeguard civilians will be interpreted as code for advocating regime change. Russia and China oppose regime change on principle, and don’t want to see their own policies and integrity attacked in the name of human rights. But by discarding the limitations the UNSC placed on the intervention in Libya, NATO also discarded much of the legitimacy of the UNSC itself – thus making it less likely that the UN can be effective tool for protecting civilians in the future.
The main problem with this argument is that the text itself of Resolution 1973 does not reject regime change as an outcome of intervention. Nowhere in the document does it say that the Qaddafi government is to maintain intact or anything to that effect. The sole limitations on force that were incorporated into the text were that there would be no ground forces used in the implementation of the no-fly zone and that civilians were to be protected using all means necessary. Anything else that may or may not have been agreed upon between the members of the Security Council never made it into the legally binding document.
This is not the first time that arguments over the text resulted in a heightened sense of ambiguity on the ground. The most blatant example is the final version of Resolution 242, calling for an end to the Six Day War in 1967. Differences between the English and French texts have been exploited for decades, mostly by the United States and Israel. This isn’t to say that the practice is to be commended, just to note that it has been ongoing for decades. Vagaries in the approved text of Security Council resolutions are basically a fact of life, while the legitimacy of the Council’s resolutions has gone unquestioned. Any overreach by NATO in implementing Resolution 1973 is far from a death-blow to the acceptance of the Council’s words, by members and non-members alike. Instead, we’ve seen attempts to modify this practice, in Russian attempts on draft resolutions on Syria to insert language specifically ruling out the any possibility of interpretation for authorization of the use of force.
In the statements following the vote on 1973, the majority of Council members stressed the illegitimacy of the Qaddafi regime, using pre-written language that surely closely mirrored what was being said in closed consultations. While Russia did express concern about the lack of modifiers on the use of force, it is on the shoulders of the Russian Federation to veto in such an instant, if they truly did see the potential wiggle room as a threat to their national interests. Instead, Russia and China, along with Germany, Brazil, and India, abstained. Russia and China have been seen as eager to not repeat this “mistake” when discussing Syria, but was it really that much of a con job? In his speech, Churkin acknowledged the churn for the use of force in Libya; China likewise acknowledged that they are “always against the use of force in international relations”. And yet both abstained, noting the special circumstances surrounding Libya. Foust himself noted upon the passing of 1973 that it was “in essence, a declaration of war by the international community against Qaddafi”, something that surely didn’t escape the Chinese and Russian delegations.
Also, to say that NATO discarded the legitimacy of the UNSC in this instance is false. In fact, everything was done that is supposed to happen when dealing with the use of force. Unlike in the Kosovo situation, which was also labeled as a push to protect civilians and where force was used without official Security Council approval, there was a vote and a mandate for Libya. No ground invasion was launched and a no-fly zone was established: mandate complied with. The equality in which that mandate was carried out, as civilian protection in the face of rebel atrocities surely should have been considered, is a different matter. In any instance, the pushback that occurred in the Council by Russia and China cooled in the months and years following Kosovo. So too did the fury of France, China, and Russia when the United States circumvented the Council to launch an attack on Iraq. So to assume that Russia and China will henceforth push back on United States’ interests merely out of spite doesn’t hold up. If, and when, pushback does occur on Council action, it will be for the same reason it always does, because the resolution in question runs counter to the national interests of the vetoing party.
Finally, aside from the thorny matter of Syria, a paralysis does simply not exist in the Security Council. For the last several months, the Council has been meeting and working on many issues outside of the crackdown in Homs and other Syrian cities. The most diplomatic energy has surely gone into convincing Assad to end the killing, but other discussions on matters of international peace and security have hardly ground to a halt. In the time since Resolution 1973, the Security Council has passed resolutions on the following situations: Afghanistan, Cote d’Ivoire, Haiti, Western Sahara, the Democratic People’s Republic of the Congo, Cyprus, the Sudan, the Middle East, Iraq, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Burundi, Guinea-Bissau, Timor-Leste, West Africa, non-proliferation, peace and security in Africa, terrorism, and children in armed conflict. Not to mention dozens of non-binding, unanimous, Presidential Statements and press statements, including now three PRSTs on Syria. Oh, and a further five resolutions on Libya.
While Foust does not do so directly in his piece, blaming Libya for the Security Council’s inaction on Syria, not only are observers seeing what they would like in their diagnosis, but also missing a larger picture. The Security Council has had disputes before on its role in maintaining international peace and security. It will continue to do so as the lines of sovereignty are tested again and again in the name of the protection of individuals. And the Permanent Members have had, and will continue to have, spats related to actions taken beyond what the Council has endorsed. But the overarching mechanism that is the Council will continue working despite these setbacks. They survived the Cold War; I’m pretty sure they’ll survive Libya.