The United Nations and Syria

The United Nations and Syria

In this article, we shall discuss the actions of the United Nations and the United Nations Security Council as it relates to the conflict and crisis in Syria. As shall be argued, the United Nations, particularly the United Nations Security Council, has failed at agreeing to any serious efforts at protecting civilians in Syria. Much of this, as shall be argued, has to do with the nature of the Security Council, and the international relations and interests of the major powers in the UNSC.

The Syrian conflict has existed since early 2011, when citizens began revolting against leader Bashar al-Asad. Yet, over four and one half years later, the violence in the countries continues. It has been reported that over 220,000 people have lost their lives in Syria, with millions fleeing the country. Bashar al-Asad, in response to the protests in early 2011, used violence against his population, targeting, hurting, and killing dissidents and many of those who are opposed to his regime.

In the context of international human rights, with particular attention on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, the international community has an obligation to intervene in Syria to protect civilian lives. While the international community and the United Nations call for states to protect their citizens, when this protection no longer exists (or when the state is the one committing the rights abuses), then the international community can override issues of state sovereignty and can enter a country as a humanitarian-driven action. And it has been quite clear that human rights violations were committed by the Al-Asad regime against those in Syria. For example, “By the end of 2014 the UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry (CoI) had published nine major reports documenting gross human rights abuses perpetrated in Syria. The CoI has argued that pro-government forces “continue to conduct widespread attacks on civilians, systematically committing murder, torture, rape and enforced disappearance as crimes against humanity” and have also committed extensive war crimes. The CoI also reported on war crimes committed by some armed opposition groups, including “murder, execution without due process, torture, hostage taking,” as well as widespread violations of international humanitarian law” (Adams, 2015: 8). In addition, Al-Asad’s forces were not the only ones committing mass rights violations; these have occurred with different opposition forces as well. Overall, this has led to a highly unstable situation in Syria, and one that has desperately needed international support in order to protect civilians caught in the conflict.

Yet, the United Nations Security Council failed to take the needed action to intervene in Syria. In 2011, for example, non-permanent members of the United Nations such as India, Brazil, and South Africa questioned whether United Nations Security Council involvement would actually make matters worse in Syria with regards to a possible sectarian conflict in the country (Adams, 2015). While they did call for conflict to stop, and did criticize the government for actions against the population, “all three countries subsequently abstained on an October 2011 draft Security Council resolution aimed at holding the Assad government accountable for atrocities that had already killed close to 2,000 people. Explaining South Africa’s unwillingness to vote for the resolution, Ambassador Baso Sangqu argued that with regard to the Syrian conflict, “the templates for the solution were very clear, it was along similar lines to Libya” (Adams, 2015: 10). However, further statements against intervention in Syria were made. As Adams (2015) explains,

Three years ago in February 2012, for the second time since the conflict began, Russia and China vetoed a United Nations (UN) Security Council draft resolution aimed at holding the Syrian government accountable for crimes against humanity. Watching the discussion in the chamber after the vote, the depth of un-diplomatic emotion was palpable. In particular, Susan Rice, then United States Ambassador to the UN and now President Barack Obama’s National Security Advisor, said her government was “disgusted” by the veto of a resolution intended to help protect civilians and halt atrocities.4 Although the resolution had been supported by 13 of the 15 members of the Council, diplomats and human rights advocates in New York were despondent.

Countries such as Guatemala spoke on the importance of Syrian sovereignty (Adams, 2015). However, not only did the UNSC not act in Syria, but it has been argued that their inaction actually led to additional killings in the country, with death rates increasing drastically following the 2012 veto vote. Namely, “The killing rate in Syria increased from approximately 1,000 per month to approximately 5,000 per month during 2012 as the civil war metastasised. Between February and November of 2012 the death toll soared from over 5,000 to almost 60,000.” However, Adams also points out that the failure to intervene actually led to a more direct hardline actions by the Syrian regime, which has also led to increased opposition resistance, and an increasingly unwillingness for sides to negotiate on the conflict. And in July of 2012, Russia and China vetoed another Security Council resolution calling for accountability with regards to atrocities committed in Syria, and UN sanctions against the government. And because of this, Adams argues that “the permanent members of the Security Council bear a special burden of responsibility for their failure to protect the Syrian people” (5).

Actions Taken By The United Nations and UN States Related to Syria

Now, despite the failures of the United Nations Security Council, the United Nations (and some UN states) did take individual actions against the Syrian regime. For example, “

The League of Arab States (Arab League), European Union (EU), Turkey and a range of other states publicly censured the Syrian government for its actions and diplomatically isolated the regime. By March 2012, one year after the conflict began, at least 49 countries had imposed bilateral targeted sanctions while at least 14 had closed their embassies in Damascus” (Adams, 2015). In addition, there were also actions by the Human Rights Council. For example, 

“The Human Rights Council in Geneva passed thirteen resolutions condemning mass atrocities in Syria between 2011 and September 2014 and established an independent Commission of Inquiry to document grave violations of human rights. Similarly, the General Assembly passed seven resolutions condemning Syrian atrocities, with a February 2012 resolution drawing support from 137 states in the 193-member assembly. While the number of abstentions fluctuated, no more than 13 states voted against any General Assembly resolution condemning atrocities in Syria.50 The Secretary-General and his Special Advisors for the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect also released numerous statements condemning mass atrocities in Syria and calling for the protection of civilians.51” (11).

Russia’s Role In Syria

Given Russia’s strategic alliance with Al-Asad, and its international relations and interests in maintaining an influence in the Middle East, it was no surprise to many to find out that Russia was directly supporting the Al-Asad regime. This became even more evident recently with Russia sending in military support to target not only Islamic State forces, but also other opposition forces to the Al-Asad regime. Russia is not hiding their open support and interest in keeping the current Syrian regime in power. And thus, because of this strategic relationship, it has been in their political interests to vote in favor of any UNSC resolution that could potentially cause additional harm to Al-Asad in Syria, and in turn, possibly reduce Russian influence in the country. Yet, this clearly shows the problems with the UNSC; any of the five veto states have a great imbalance of power, and are able to make the UNSC inactive by using their veto power vote. As Adams (2015) stated:

Worryingly, from the Russian and Chinese perspective, after the third Security Council veto in July 2012 a growing number of UN member states started to not only question Russia’s impartiality with regard to Syria, but also the legitimacy and efficacy of the Security Council itself. In particular, the veto rights of the five permanent members came under increased scrutiny.

On 24 September 2013 the 68th session of the General Assembly opened in New York. The theme of the General Debate was the Post-2015 Millennium Development Goals Framework. However, 154 out of 193 UN member states used their statements as an opportunity to record their horror regarding Syria’s ongoing civil war. Sixty-three states, or a third of the total membership of the UN, called for the reform of the Security Council, with a number specifically calling for restraint on the use of the veto in mass atrocity situations (20).” 

Thus, manny members of the General Assembly are quite unhappy with the current UNSC powers, and how they were used in the context of Syria. What is important to note, however, is that in order to a change to the UNSC, it must be approved by the Security Council itself. The chances of the UK, US, Russia, France, and Britain voting to alter the Security Council away from a system that gives them strong power is highly unlikely.



Adams, S. (2015). Failure to Protect: Syria and the UN Security Council. Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. Occasional Paper Series, No. 5, March 2015.

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