Wednesday, April 5, 2017

International Response to a Chemical Attack in Syria: Beyond the U.N.

In the wake of the chemical-weapons attack in Syria on March 4, 2017, Russia blocked a condemnation and investigation into the source by vetoing the U.N. Security Council resolution. Meanwhile, the American administration’s view of the Syrian government was shifting. President Trump told reporters, “my attitude toward Syria and Assad . . . has changed very much.”[1] Cleverly, the American president would not disclose whether the United States would respond against the Syrian government. The question of whether an empire like the U.S. or an international organization like the U.N. should respond hinged on the question of whether the latter was institutionally hamstrung on account of the power of national sovereignty in the organization. In short, if the U.N. was impotent, then the moral imperative could shift to the major powers in the world, such as China, Russia, the E.U., and the U.S.

 U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley presenting evidence of the chemical attack in Syria.
(Source: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

President Trump said the images of children dying from the chemical attack “crosses many lines.”[2] It had not been the first time that such an attack had occurred during the tenure of the Assad regime. Trump noted that to draw a line in the sand and sit by as it is crossed as if with impunity would be weak. It could be added that such a self-imposed impotence is immoral, given the likelihood of future suffering in Syria if the status quo were to continue.

Naturally, the world looked to the U.N. to condemn the attack and confirm that the Assad regime had been behind the attack. For an ally of Assad, namely Russia, to block even an investigation suggests that the veto-power itself on the Security Council is problematic. In fact, it could be argued that the power relegates the U.N. and opens up a power-void into which governments critical of the chemical attack could legitimately fill. “Time and time again Russia uses the same false narrative to deflect attention from their allies in Damascus. How many more children have to die before Russia cares?” Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., said.[3] The moral imperative was clear. “When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action.”[4] The U.N.’s failure to reform itself such that its Security Council can act essentially relegates the institution, such that global powers may find themselves morally obliged to step in and essentially do the U.N.’s job in enforcing its rules on a recalcitrant member—Syria being a member of the U.N.

In the early 1990s, the United States effectively led a “coalition of the willing” to undo the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The legitimacy of this reaction on behalf of international law was in part due to the failure of the U.N. to act even to enforce its own rules. It is telling that the proposed resolution on the Syrian chemical attack “expresses its determination that those responsible must be held accountable” but provides “no concrete measures to do so.”[5] Sadly, even if the resolution would have passed, its impact would likely have been nugatory. Why then go through the motions if not just for the PR? Is that what international law is to be—an avenue for good PR? It is not surprising that members have flaunted U.N. rules, clearly being aware in advance of the impunity that would result from violating them. The U.N.’s approach to its own rules and resolutions detracts from a culture internationally in which international law is regarded as law rather than something like a preference or window-dressing.

Given the dangers from countries having nuclear weapons, and the danger facing the species itself from climate change, it can be argued that even coming to depend on coalitions of the willing would be insufficient. In other words, given the gravity of the modern problems facing our species, some compromise on national sovereignty makes sense. That even such a compromise may be too difficult suggests in turn that our species may not be up to handling the most serious threats to our very survival. The real blockage may be in the human mind—specifically, the stubborn refusal to admit even the possibility of being wrong and thus needed to change. This would explain why the U.N. has perpetuated its own impotence.

[1] Michael D. Shear and Peter Baker, “Trump’s View of Syria and Assad Altered After ‘Unacceptable’ Chemical Attack,” The New York Times, April 5, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Somini Sengupta and Rick Gladstone, “Nikki Haley Says U.S. May ‘Take Our Own Action’ on Syrian Chemical Attack,” The New York Times,  April 5, 2017.