home Human Rights, Middle East, Politics The UN’s Impotence in the Face of Syrian Human Rights Abuses

The UN’s Impotence in the Face of Syrian Human Rights Abuses

The announcement of the United Nations’ recent appointment of Zimbabwean dictator and human rights abuser Robert Mugabe as an international envoy to promote tourism was laughable. Notwithstanding the fact that the repressive state has been so devastated by Mugabe and his cronies that there is barely any tourism in Zimbabwe, the appointment was also evidence of how irrelevant and out of step the UN has become.

More seriously, though, there are dangerous consequences to the UN’s incompetence. The international body’s failures are now playing out to devastating effect in Syria, where the Assad regime shows very little inclination to reign in assaults on the Syrian people because of the UN-negotiated “peace agreement” said to be in place in the country.

According to the Syrian government, about 10,000 people have died since the beginning of Syria’s anti-government uprising about a year ago. Over the course of a year, in other words, the UN has had no leverage with which to help stop the killing. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan helped craft a peace agreement in March. It took ten months for the great powers endorse any plan at all and another two months for Annan to recognize that plan had failed.

Early this morning, Al Jazeera’s top headline reported Annan’s concession that the plan hadn’t worked. Now, just a few hours later, it’s “UN Monitors in Syria Reach ‘Massacre Site’.” Just one more Syrian massacre and at least 78 more dead. And the United Nations there to observe atrocities in another poor country.

In the headlines, of course, Annan blames Syria for the plan’s failure. As statements about world affairs go, of course, this one seems rather on the nose. Of course the human rights violations are the fault of the government apparatus that is committing human rights violations in Syria.

But that’s a bit of a non-starter since part of the UN’s mandate is to reign in leaders who can’t, or won’t, stop the indiscriminate killing of civilians. It completely ignores the way in which both Middle Eastern regional politics and great power politics have derailed peace negotiations in Syria. So, yes, of course the Assad regime is at fault for the human rights violations, but the international justice system has also given him more than a little maneuvering room.

The United Nations is, for better or worse, the main international body that has the jurisdiction to police international human rights abuses throughout the world, including the atrocities in Syria. It does this in one of three ways: First, it can issue Security Council resolutions authorizing force, economic sanctions or other punitive measures for states that fail to comply with international law. These resolutions are very difficult to come by under the best of situations, but competition between the five great powers that comprise the permanent Security Council members has been particularly devastating for the Syrian resistance – and has really diminished the possibility of sustainable peace. Two of the five – China and Russia – have vetoed resolutions in the case of Syria, largely because they benefit from weapons trade with the country.

The US, UK and France have called for stronger economic sanctions, but these countries were never really Assad’s allies in the first place. So far, the strongest message came when the US and other Western countries expelled Syrian diplomats last week. But that was a mere symbolic gesture that seems unlikely to help anyone in the country.

The second mechanism through which the UN can police human rights abuses is its International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutions, recently deployed to prosecute Liberia’s Charles Taylor. And maybe the ICC will be used to prosecute Assad and his cronies one day down the road, but that probably offers little comfort to people being terrorized in Syria right now. In any case, though, the US has severely delegitimized the ICC, refusing to place any of its own officials under its jurisdiction. As it stands now, the ICC really only punishes human rights abusers from poor countries.

The third UN mechanism of stopping human rights abuses lies with the human rights conventions, – the International Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and so on. These conventions are mainly a legal framework that human rights advocates and citizens can use to file complaints to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The problem, of course, is that the human rights conventions are signed by almost all countries, and are wholly unenforceable. Much was made of the US government’s long refusal to sign the Convention on the Rights of the Child, but perhaps the US was just being a little more honest than other countries there. Diplomats sign the conventions as a matter of course, and then no one really has to observe them.

The international justice system has long failed at protecting unstable peace and human rights. For the past year, Syrians have been tweeting in despair over the fact that the international community seems to care little about the ongoing suffering in Syria. They’re just the most recent casualties of a broken system that has long shown itself incapable of accomplishing anything of value at all.


Front page photo of flags at the UN by worldislandinfo,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.