Let’s kick Syria out of the United Nations
The United Nations estimates that since Syria’s uprising began over a year ago, more than 9,000 Syrians have been killed. A recent assessment from Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Elliot Abrams puts the total number of Syrian refugees at almost half a million. Worse, it appears that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are continuing to torture, imprison and kill Syrian civilians. It also seems that the recent peace plan promulgated by U.N.-Arab League peace envoy Kofi Annan, which Assad’s government agreed to, is dead. According to Turkey’s prime minister, Assad “is not withdrawing troops, but he is duping the international community.”
The conventional wisdom holds that the international community is out of alternatives, short of another potentially dangerous military intervention or the risky prospect of arming Syria’s rebels. Syria’s government has already thumbed its nose at sanctions and condemnations from the Arab League, Gulf Cooperation Council, European Union and various U.N. organs and individual countries. The Security Council, thanks to the vetoes of Russia and China, is also constrained to issuing awkward joint statements rather than passing binding resolutions.
But there is another option that has received surprisingly little attention.
Specifically, the United States as well as like-minded delegations in the West and Middle East should consider calling for Syria’s suspension from the U.N.’s most democratic and representative organ, the General Assembly (UNGA), where all 193 U.N. member states normally get one vote. Such an act would entail zero material costs, avoid veto authority and be a critical step toward alleviating the humanitarian nightmare unfolding in Syria.
In particular, Syria’s suspension would act to further isolate Syria’s leadership, increase the probability of high-level Syrian defections both at the U.N. and elsewhere and likely bolster the confidence of the country’s beleaguered internal opposition forces. Most important, Syria’s suspension would unambiguously express the international community’s collective disgust with the actions of Syria’s ruling government while providing a new form of leverage to compel Syria’s government to change course.
There is U.N. precedent for such drastic action, and it happened more than 30 years ago. Citing apartheid, a majority of the nine-member U.N. Credentials Committee – which confirms the credentials of U.N. delegations – and a supermajority of the General Assembly voted to suspend South Africa’s participation in the UNGA in 1974. It also just so happens that a majority of the current Credentials Committee, along with a two-thirds majority of other U.N. member states, already voted to condemn “widespread and systematic” human rights abuses in Syria during a UNGA vote in February 2012. As a result, a unique window of opportunity for suspending Syria may have opened, given that neither the Credentials Committee nor the General Assembly provides any state with veto authority. In addition, when the UNGA voted to condemn Syria in February, Russia and China – regardless of their great-power status in the U.N. – were joined only by an ultra-minority of 10 other delegations in opposing the resolution.
Still, detractors could argue that there are lots of rights violators sitting pretty in the UNGA and that suspending Syria will open the floodgates for more suspension proposals, ultimately creating chaos at Turtle Bay. While it is true there are human rights violators that can speak and vote within the UNGA on a daily basis (i.e., North Korea), none have faced the torrent of warnings, sanctions, olive branches, second chances, third chances, and regional and global condemnation that Syria has. All of this would ensure that suspending Syria is perceived as a one-off emergency measure rather than a precedent to transform the UNGA into a Survivor episode.
Critics may also worry that suspending Syria will lead to politically driven suspension campaigns targeting U.S. allies, namely Israel. This, though, ignores the fact that several attempts to suspend Israel occurred in the 1980s and none succeeded. Moreover, the same political muscle the United States and other delegations could employ to suspend Syria is fungible and could be easily recalibrated to protect U.S. allies.
Finally, opponents of pursuing suspension could counter that the U.N. Charter requires a positive corresponding vote of the Security Council, which is a nonstarter. While Article 6 of the U.N. Charter indeed reads, “A Member of the United Nations which has persistently violated the Principles contained in the present Charter may be expelled from the Organization by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council,” the Security Council never actually voted to approve South Africa’s suspension in 1974. In addition, in February 2011, Libya’s deputy U.N. ambassador in New York, Ibrahim Dabbashi, was somehow able to request an emergency meeting of the Security Council – a right reserved for U.N. member state delegations – on the same day he announced that he would represent the Libyan people rather than Muammar al-Qaddafi. Both cases suggest that under exceptional circumstances, there may be more maneuverability in this area than usually acknowledged.
Suspending Syria’s participation in the UNGA is hardly a panacea for the current crisis, but it nonetheless represents a pragmatic middle ground between more extreme alternatives and maintaining the status quo.
PHOTO: Demonstrators protest against Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad in Kafranbel, near Idlib, April 10, 2012. REUTERS/Raad Al Fares/Shaam News Network/Handout