The Security Council of the United Nations: Veto Powers and the Right to Protect – The War Within in Syria

by Suleiman Oji

What are the justifications for allowing few members of the UN the right to reject a proposed measure of the UNSC through a veto power without qualification? The justification for such sweeping powers may only be explained informally on speculation. Perhaps the political and economic muscles of super powers vested with such powers are the reasons.

It is true that in world affairs, and in particular, when issues involves economic and political responsibility the roles of the super powers of the UN vested with veto powers in tackling such challenges are paramount. Therefore if the slogan that ‘he who pays the piper must dictate the tune’ is to hold sway, the wish of countries shouldering the economic and political responsibilities of the UN as it relates to the enforcement of the resolutions of the UNSC must ‘override all other interests.’

It is however submitted that such veto powers are not given to these countries to be used in a manner that its evocation will undermine the responsibility of the UNSC to act in the nick of time to prevent avoidable calamities in the nature of ‘mass atrocities crimes,’ or ‘humanitarian crisis’ which is either threatened or are taking place in any member state.

This means that such veto power must be evoked with a great sense of responsibility, and judiciously. And where its evocation will constitute a stumbling block to the SC’s intervention, then it would be ludicrous to allow it. This is because to do otherwise, will encourage or promote arbitrariness that would support oppressive regimes brutally cracking down on their citizens making legitimate demands in a mass action through street power.

The UN prior 2005 had watched ‘mass atrocities crimes,’ perpetrated in some countries and, the concept of state sovereignty had been a militating factor for the UNSC intervention to either nip in the bud or curtail such ‘mass atrocities crimes’ before they go out of proportion. It was this principle of non-intervention that hindered the UNSC from intervening in Rwanda where ‘mass atrocities crimes’ of unimaginable proportions took place.

In history the American revolution and French revolution produced such dastardly consequences which then informed the thinking that in war or peace times certain rights must remain inviolable. The framers of American Constitution evolved the idea of basic human rights as essential components of Western societies that should be entrenched in constitutional or supra-national documents.

Although the idea of expressing such values in a written constitution is traceable to the founders of the American Constitution, the determination of the legal effect of such fundamental rights or Bill of Rights from the standpoint of legal enforcement was left to the judges. In this regard, a one-time Chief Judge of America, Chief Justice Marshall, in the early 19th century is said to have revolutionized the doctrine that it was for the courts, and ultimately the supreme courts, to ascertain the scope of the fundamental basic rights as are entrenched in constitutional or supra-national documents.

Notwithstanding that these rights (the most important of which is right to life) are entrenched in Bill of Rights or supra-national documents of member states of the UN they are observed in breach in times of internal strives or civil wars as is being witnessed in Syria. The UN General Assembly was rendered impotent when its resolution intended to allow the UNSC to wade in and curtail the palpable ‘mass atrocities crimes’ taking place in that country since the agitation by the opposition calling for the resignation of Assad regime, was vetoed by Russia and China.

The evocation of the veto power by the China and Russia against such proposed measure has only embolden the Assad regime to crack down on the opposition with excessive force leaving in its wake lost of lives and properties – which can pass as ‘mass atrocities crimes.’

After the Rwandan crisis which shocked the world Canada came up with a proposal that would no longer allow the principles of non-intervention to constitute a barrier where intervention by UNSC is essential to prevent or stop ‘mass atrocities crimes’ which is either threatened or is actually taking place in any member state. This was in the nature of the principles of ‘Right to Protect’ dubbed R2P.

R2P is an acronym for Responsibility to Protect. It is the brainchild of Canada. The United Nations adopted it in a resolution passed in 2005. It was probably in response to former Secretary General of the United Nations, Mr. Kofi Annan comments as to when would it become feasible for the UN to intervene to protect populations against ‘mass atrocities crimes’ where it is threatened or is actually on-going. Rwanda was cited as a example where such failures resulted to ‘mass atrocities crimes.’

Canada had in 2000 set up the International Commission on Intervention and State Responsibility (ICISS)which it proposed should serve as a framework that would enable the UN to respond to emerging crisis bordering on wide scale crimes against humanity or Mass Atrocities Crimes. ‘Mass Atrocities Crimes’ is defined to include ‘genocide,’ ‘war crimes,’ ‘crimes against humanity,’ and ‘ethnic cleansing:’ (B.A. Akinterinwa: ‘Africa and Pacta Sunt Servanda: The Case of R2P,’ Thisday Newspaper, June 17, 2011, p. 18). This Commission was considered a necessity even though its role might infringe on the state sovereignty. It is a case of compassion for humanity overriding the interests of state sovereignty. As stated above the UN General Assembly adopted it in its resolution in 2005 (paragraphs 138 – 139: (see B.A. Akinterinwa, op.cit).

The point here is that with the omnipotent status of veto powers in the SC this lofty ideals will remain a hollow framework. In particular, where the interests of the super-powers are involved. In the case of Syria, it is the ‘interests’ of Russia and China. Another time, it may be the ‘interests’ of US, UK, and France. To give overriding effect to the principles of R2P other member states of the UN should raise their voices in the General Assembly against evocation of veto power where recourse to it would defeat a measure intended to protect populations against ‘Mass Atrocities Crimes.’ I may not use the words ‘Mass Atrocities Crime’ to describe the Israeli military activities in Gaza, but I believe that if the UN General Assembly approves the statehood of Palestine it would be a veritable road map to sustainable peace between the ‘State’ of Palestine and Israel in the long run.

Furthermore, those super powers who are pushing for the involvement of the SC in Syria in order to protect populations against crimes against humanity should show leadership by proposing a reappraisal of the omnipotent status of veto powers in the SC. In this case it is proposed that the UN General Assembly should pass a resolution which will disallow recourse to veto by any of the super powers in SC where its evocation would serve as prodding to repressive regimes to act with reckless abandon against populations exercising a ‘legitimate agitation’ against sit tight leaders.

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