President Obama began weighing options of a possible military strike on the Syrian government of Bashar Al Assad after the use of chemical weapons. The Syrian civil conflict has been going on for more than two years, killings hundreds of thousands civilians. The conflict garnered international attention after the Assad government allegedly used chemical weapons to gas his own people. Soon the US – followed by France – responded to the internationally banned use of chemical weapons. The US threatened to strike Syria, unilaterally if they did not receive a UN Security Council authorization. However, After the Russian foreign minister Sergey V. Lavrov proposed a plan that Syria should hand over all of its weapons to the international community, his counterpart Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed the proposal.
The proposal once paved the way for diplomacy and avoided another potential war, at least for now. Clearly, the diplomacy route had not been fully practiced before announcing a potential military strike. The UN charter requires that all other means of diplomacy such as sanctions, negotiations, agreements, etc. must be tried before resorting to force. An attack under the UN charter is only allowed in self-defense and/or it has to be authorized by the Security Council. The UN Secretary General has warned that an attack on Syria would be against international law. He adds that it would only add to the ongoing conflict.
A possible US unilateral military strike raises serious questions on the role of the UN and the legitimate authority of its most important body, the Security Council. The Russian-brokered release of Assad’s chemical weapons to the international community clearly shows that not all diplomatic means have been tried. Further, the proposal of handing over the chemical weapons by Syria to the international community is evident that diplomacy and peaceful negotiations still can work.
So the question now is: Is the UN a puppet organization of the P-5 members or does it still maintain a chief role as the legitimate authority that can address and deal with international matters? The answer depends on many factors such as personality and role of the Secretary General, consensus of the P-5, the will of the actors within the UN, and national interests of states.
The Secretary General has an important job. He represents and speaks for the United Nations. Article 99 of the UN charter however bestows more important power than just a symbolic one. The Secretary General has the power to bring an issue to the consideration and attention of the Security Council as he sees fit.
Further, the personality of the Secretary General is another important factor. Dag Hammarskjöld played an important role in inventing the current Peace Keeping Operations, a concept not addressed in the UN charter. For others, personality has been their enemy. Boutros Boutros-Ghali had to resign as the first ever the Secretary General to do because apparently he angered the United States with his outspoken demeanor.
Current Secretary General of the UN Ban Ki Moon on the other hand has been criticized for his lack of leadership and not assuming the role of a strong Secretary General. There is a thin line between autonomy as Secretary General and the necessary cooperation with the P-5 and other major players in order to raise funds for the UN. Nonetheless, a General Secretary has to assume a leadership role.
Ban Ki moon seems to have his hands tied up at times. It was only recently when he spoke against the Syrian strike and warned that a military attack would be against international law. He also added that the Security Council is the only legitimate body that can authorize a military action, hinting that a US unilateral military campaign would be illegal.
In theory as well as practice, the Secretary General could do more. Ban Ki Moon could respond to the US or any other party who threaten unilateral action, by referring to the Uniting for Peace Resolution, a principle adopted by the General Assembly to “override” a Security Council veto in a deadlock situation.
The Uniting for Peace Resolution was adopted by the General Assembly in the absence of the Soviet Union from the Security Council who was boycotting the replacement of the Taiwanese seat by main-land China. In the course of the history of the United Nations, the resolution has been put to work in several instances. When the Security Council failed to deal with the Suez Canal crisis, an emergency session was convened in the General Assembly and the issue was transferred from the Security Council to the Assembly for a more effective action. A peacekeeping force was approved by the session and thus deployed. Similar sessions were convened to deal with the Congo crisis in 1950, and on the conflict between India and Pakistan, the invasion by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in 1980 and others.
However, since the 1950’s there is widely accepted agreement that the Security Council should be the only body in the UN to authorize force. But in extraordinary circumstances, such as what we are seeing now in Syria, Ban Ki Moon could very well make a case for a Uniting for Peace Resolution in order to avoid a unilateral strike by the US.
The disagreement between members of P-5 is common. But it raises the issue of consensus among the P-5 and its effect on the role of the UN. The P-5 members have used their veto powers many times since the empowerment of the principle. The US has on several occasions intervened and waged wars against other states (Iraq, Kosovo, etc.) due to the lack of consensus and vetoes in the Security Council. The consensus of the members depends on the political will of the member states.
For instance, Rwandan genocide was largely ignored by the international community because there was not much political will to take action. The political will in turn depends on many factors, some of the most important being a state’s national interests, foreign policy, the cost of intervening in a conflict, etc. So building a consensus among the P-5 therefore becomes a struggle and sometimes an impossible task within the UN. This greatly undermines the UN and its role in international matters and thus states lead to take unilateral actions. This is not to say that unilateral actions are legitimate in anyway, or to blame the UN for the cause of unilateral actions.
The UN has again been thrust into center stage as the US and Russia tenuously navigate divergent interests regarding Syria, primarily through the United Nations. The credibility of this international organization is seen as the legitimate authority. However, if the parties do not reach a constructive agreement which bears results that satisfy all parties, and the US resorts to force unilaterally, the role of the UN could be over-shadowed once again by the superpower.