By Stephen Zunes
As the Syrian regime continues to slaughter unarmed civilians, the major powers at the United Nations continue to put their narrow geopolitical agenda ahead of international humanitarian law. Just as France shields Morocco from accountability for its ongoing occupation and repression in Western Sahara and just as the United States shields Israel from having to live up to its obligations under international humanitarian law, Russia and China have used their permanent seats on the UN Security Council to protect the Syrian regime from accountability for its savage repression against its own citizens.
On Saturday, Russia and China vetoed an otherwise unanimous UN Security Council resolution condemning the ongoing repression in Syria and calling for a halt to violence on all sides, unfettered access for Arab League monitors, and “a Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, plural political system, in which citizens are equal regardless of their affiliations or ethnicities or beliefs.”
Although the joint Russian and Chinese veto of the resolution is inexcusable, the self-righteous reaction by U.S. officials betrays hypocrisy on a grand scale and fails to take into account a series of policy blunders that have contributed to the tragic impasse.
Using the Veto
Since 1970, China has used its veto power eight times, Russia (including the former Soviet Union) has used its veto power 13 times, and the United States has used its veto power 83 times, primarily in defense of allies accused of violating international humanitarian law. Forty-two of these U.S. vetoes were to protect Israel from criticism for illegal activities, including suspected war crimes. To this day, Israel occupies and colonizes a large swath of southwestern Syria in violation of a series of UN Security Council resolutions. Yet Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insists that it is the Russians and Chinese who have “neutered” the Security Council’s ability to defend basic human rights.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice expressed the feelings of many human rights advocates around the world when she said that she was “disgusted” by the Russian-Chinese veto. Ironically, Rice herself disgusted many human rights advocates around the world last year when she vetoed an otherwise unanimous UN Security Council resolution that simply reiterated a longstanding principle of international humanitarian law—codified in the Fourth Geneva Convention, four previous UNSC resolutions, and a landmark World Court decision—that Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank are illegal and there should be a freeze on further construction.
By contrast, the call in Saturday’s resolution for an internationally recognized government to effectively hand over power to the opposition, although justifiable in light of the extraordinary repression, is a virtually unprecedented move by the UN Security Council. Although territories under foreign military occupation, like those occupied by Israel, are clearly under UN purview, the willingness of the UN to challenge human rights abuses within a country’s internationally recognized borders is relatively new.
Obama’s veto last year, then, was on far weaker ground legally than last weekend’s veto by China and Russia. So were most of the other UN Security Council resolutions vetoed by previous U.S. administrations.
Still, the double veto by Russia and China is particularly disappointing because it foiled what could have been an important precedent of the international community taking a stand against internal repression by delegitimizing a sitting government because of its large-scale killing of civilian citizens. Given Russia’s large-scale killings of Chechen civilians and China’s massacres of its citizens in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere, it is a precedent that neither regime wanted to see.
Only recently has the UN Security Council even attempted to address large-scale and systematic human rights abuses within the borders of its member states. Despite the Russian and Chinese veto, it’s a credit to the growing influence of human rights advocates and civil society activists (notwithstanding the hypocrisy and double standards of some of the resolution’s sponsors) that the resolution even came before the Security Council in the first place. If Assad eventually falls, Russia and China will find themselves on the wrong side of history.
Though the veto has prevented the Security Council from being able to curb aggression and promote the peaceful settlement of conflicts, the resolution nonetheless forced recalcitrant governments to embarrass themselves before world opinion and perhaps think twice before so openly defending repression in the future.
Other Factors Strengthening Assad and His Allies
There are other factors that have unfortunately played into the hands of the Assad regime and its international supporters.
The turn to armed struggle by some elements of the Syrian resistance has weakened the moral imperative to sanction the Syrian regime. It has allowed Assad’s backers to call the Syrian uprising a civil war led by Islamist extremists, a claim no one took seriously when the struggle largely maintained its nonviolent discipline. Instead of coming to the defense of an unarmed populace being brutally massacred by an illegitimate repressive regime, the rise of the Free Syrian Army has given the appearance that the UN is attempting to take sides in a civil war.
Although it is certainly understandable that the large-scale killings of peaceful protesters could lead many in the resistance to support armed struggle, it was just such nonviolent discipline that led to so many defections from the Syrian armed forces in the first place. Soldiers and officers are far more likely to defect if they are being ordered to shoot into an unarmed group of demonstrators than if they are being shot at. General strikes and other actions were crippling the economy, leading to major fissures among the regime’s supporters. The rise of the Free Syrian Army, however, appears to have solidified the regime’s wavering support.
Indeed, according to a recent study of the more than 300 major uprisings against autocratic regimes and colonial powers over the past century, unarmed resistance has proved to be more than twice as successful as armed resistance.
Another factor that may have helped prompt the Russian and Chinese veto was the two countries’ willingness to allow passage of last year’s resolution on Libya, which called for the establishment of a no-fly zone and other defensive measures to protect the civilian population from attacks by Gaddafi’s forces. Unfortunately, NATO went well beyond its UNSC mandate to protect civilian lives and effectively became the air force for the rebels—and even ended up being responsible for scores of civilian casualties itself. Although the recently vetoed resolution on Syria did not authorize foreign intervention, NATO’s overreach on Libya certainly contributed to Russia and China’s intransigence on Syria.
Still another factor has been the U.S. use of the UN to unfairly single out Syria in the past. For example, the United States imposed strict sanctions on Syria in 2003 (the “Syria Accountability Act”), in part because of Syria’s violation of UNSC Resolution 520, which called for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon. However, the only foreign forces mentioned by name in the UN resolution were those of Israel, which occupied southern Lebanon for 22 years with the active support of the U.S. government, which successfully blocked the enforcement of that resolution and nine subsequent resolutions calling for Israel’s unconditional withdrawal. (Israel finally pulled its occupation forces out of Lebanon in May 2000 over U.S. objections.)
Even since Syria withdrew its forces from Lebanon in 2005, U.S. sanctions have remained in effect because of other U.S. conditions, such as the demand that Syria unilaterally halt its development and deployment of missiles as well as chemical and biological weapons. Yet the United States allowed its allies Israel, Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia to continue developing their larger and more advanced missile systems, and allowed Israel and Egypt in particular to develop their larger and more sophisticated arsenal of chemical and biological weapons.
In a further irony, the primary sponsor of last weekend’s resolution on Syria was Morocco, a non-permanent member of UN Security Council that is currently in violation of a series of Security Council resolutions regarding its illegal occupation of Western Sahara. Secretary of State Clinton, backed by a bipartisan majority of the U.S. Senate, is on record supporting Morocco’s refusal to abide by these resolutions, effectively recognizing the kingdom’s illegal annexation of the territory by supporting the Moroccan king’s limited “autonomy” proposal.
The Syria Accountability Act demanded that the UN remove Syria from its non-permanent seat in the Security Council because of its violation of UNSC resolution 520. But no such demand has been made by the United States regarding Morocco, despite its far more numerous and egregious violations of UNSC resolutions.
Such double standards inevitably raise questions about what is actually motivating the United States and other Western powers, which have long been the primary backers of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and other Arab dictatorships that have unleashed state violence against unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators.
Indeed, Washington was targeting the Syrian regime for possible overthrow long before the popular indigenous pro-democracy struggle erupted last year. The Syrian Accountability Act included clauses stating that the Syrian regime threatened “the national security interests of the United States” and warned that “Syria will be held accountable” for the deaths of American soldiers in the region if Syrian arms are involved. These clauses raised concerns that the resolution, which was adopted with only four dissenting votes in both houses of Congress, might be paving the way for a U.S. attack. Just as the 1998 “Iraq Liberation Act” was used in part as the basis for the 2003 U.S. invasion of that country, the late Senator Robert Byrd warned that the Syrian Accountability Act “could later be used to build a case for military intervention against Syria.”
Although foreign military intervention is not the answer, the international community needs to take decisive steps to stop the repression in Syria and support a transition to democracy. The Russian and Chinese veto of the moderate and reasonable UN Security Council resolution was unconscionable. Unfortunately, the policies of the United States and its allies have made it all the more difficult for the UN and peoples of the world to oppose Syrian government repression and defend the Syrian people.
Stephen Zunes, a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist and senior analyst, is a professor of Politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco. He is the author, along with Jacob Mundy, of Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution (Syracuse University Press, 2010).