For decade after decade, diplomats at the United Nations have had on-again, off-again talks on how to reform the Security Council, the supreme decision-making panel on international security. The crisis in Syria shows that progress has been minimal and that power politics often trump human rights.
At issue is the composition of a body “frozen in amber since the end of World War II,” in the words of Stewart Patrick, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based foreign policy think tank. The biggest difficulty in unfreezing it is the veto power wielded by the five permanent members of the 15-nation council – the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France.
A veto by one permanent member is enough to sink a resolution. On February 4, two veto-wielders, Russia and China, banded together to vote against a resolution that provided for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, to step aside, halt a ruthless crackdown on dissidents, and begin a transition to democracy. Assad saw the veto as a green light to crack down even harder. A week before the vetoes, the U.N. estimated the death toll at 5,400.
On February 28, it was revised to more than 7,500, the result of a merciless artillery and tank bombardment of the central city of Homs, an opposition stronghold. In the weeks between those body counts, there has been a growing chorus of condemnation of the Assad government, including a United Nations General Assembly vote (by 137 to 12) criticizing “widespread and systematic human rights violations by Syrian authorities.” Russia, China and 10 other countries voted against that resolution. It has no legal force, unlike council resolutions.
More international condemnation came from a “Friends of Syria” meeting that brought together Western and Arab foreign ministers whose calls for ending the violence and allowing access for humanitarian aid fell on deaf ears in Damascus.