Tuesday, February 28, 2017

China and Russia Protect Syria’s Assad on Chemical Weapons: A Matter of Priorities

All bets are off when it comes to regulating war. Such a condition is virtually by definition beyond the confines of law. Even international law is but an impotent dwarf next to the raw force of a governmental regime at war—whether with its own citizens or another country. To be sure, the International Criminal Court had by 2017 made a dent in holding some perpetrators of atrocities such as genocide accountable for their deeds. Such efforts were still the exception, unfortunately, when Russia, China, and Bolivia vetoes a resolution in the U.N. Security Council that would have penalize Syria’s Issad regime for having used chemical weapons on Syrians. The reasons for the vetoes—and the fact that Egypt, Ethiopia, and Kazakhstan all obstained—implies that holding perpetrators accountable by international means had not yet become a priority at the international level.

Russia’s envoy, Vladimir Safronkov, defended the veto by calling the resolution “politically biased.” He asserted, “This is railroading the draft by the Western troika.”[1] In other words, the Russian government put its rivalry with the West above holding a friend accountable. Only months earlier, the U.S. Government had refused to veto a resolution condemning its friend, Israel, for retroactively legalizing illegal Jewish settlements on private Palestinian land. So it was with some clout that the American ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, accused Russia and China of putting “their friends in the Assad regime ahead of our global security. . . . It is a sad day for the Security Council when members make excuses for other [members] killing their own people.”[2] What may not be noticed prime facie is the implication that a regime killing its own people is deprioritized when government officials prioritize friendly governments who commit such acts.

What would it take for the world as a whole to attach more importance in terms of other priorities to stopping and preventing crimes against humanity? Even intent to protect the precedent of national sovereignty—something China’s government has made a priority at the U.N.—is a deprioritizing of the crimes that a government commits against its own people and other peoples. The message is that such acts are normal, or at least tolerable. Perhaps it would take only a massive occurrence for the world as a whole to stop and admit that the usual international relations are themselves no longer viable because they are insufficient, given the priority suddenly put on the crimes themselves.  

[1] Somini Sengupta, “Russia and China Veto Penalties on Syria Over Use of Chemical Arms,” The New York Times, February 28, 2017.
[2] Ibid.