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.