By Iona Mulder -
The UN was founded after the Second World War with the primary goal of protecting peace and security in the world. One of the most important elements of this goal is the protection of people all around the world against similar atrocities that were committed by the Nazi regime; these atrocities are now framed as crimes against humanities and genocide. But who decides and how is decided within this unique and powerful international organization, that currently includes 193 states, that action is necessary to confront issues of crimes against humanity? I will provide insight into this question in a series of several articles. The intention is not to be exhaustive, but to provide a top-down overview of the decision-making process of this powerful organization, to show its competence and its weaknesses. This first article begins with the top of the chain were political decisions for action are taken: the Security Council.
Although the UN as a whole can be seen as leading the politics of the international community, its power is bound by the obligation to respect the sovereignty of states. The right to sovereignty means that the UN cannot interfere within national affairs without the permission of the state itself. This rule is the number one principle of international law. However, the Security Council forms the exception; it is the only organ that can in specific situations interfere with this fundamental principle of sovereignty – even with the use of force, often described as “use of all necessary means”. It can do so in the name of the protection of international peace and security, as described in Chapter VII of the founding charter of the UN. Whether a situation is a threat to peace and security and what measures should be taken, will be determined by a vote of the fifteen states that are a member of the council. There are five permanent members, US, UK, Russia, China, France, those countries that were considered as superpowers after The Second World War, and ten non-permanent that change every two years. These world-changing decisions on peace and security issues are made by the representative of the members states simply raising their hand, as if they were in a classroom. Live-streams of the voting meetings can be viewed at the website UN television. A decision, called a resolution, will be accepted when nine of the members vote in favor, and none of the permanent member uses their right to veto a decision.
Since the end of the eighties, the Security Council has often considered widespread international crimes against humanity as a threat to security of the international community. Examples of such situations are Former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, The Democratic Republic of the Congo. The more recent case of South-Sudan shows how the decision-making at the Security Council ideally works. Last November 11th, United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, made a visit to the young state of South-Sudan. His role as a Special Advisor is to collect information and advice and warn the Secretary-General and the Security Council of the UN on grave human rights violations of ethnic and racial origin that genocide that might escalate into genocide. The reason for his visit was continuing reports of ethnic violence in South-Sudan. In a speech before the Security Council he stated: “Last week, I saw all the signs that ethnic hatred and targeting of civilians could evolve into genocide if something is not done now to stop it. I urge the Security Council and Members States of the region to be united, and to take action.”
Already since 2011 there is a UN mission stationed within South-Sudan named UNMISS with the mandate to protect civilians, monitor, investigate human rights, and to give assistance to build up the new state. Over the years the mission was already expanded. However, as Adama Dieng has specified within his speech before the Security Council, neither the UNMISS nor strong calls upon the South Sudanese government, not even a ceasefire that was established in 2015, have led to a positive progress of the stability and security of the country. On the contrary, the violence has increased and spread over a larger area; the government army is overall feared by the population, and the current South Sudanese President Kirr made statements that incite even more violence among the different political/ethnic groups within the country.
Following Adama Dieng’s advice and call to take action before the Security Council, the Security Council decided last December 16th to expand the UNMISS even more with 4500 soldiers and broaden its mandate. This mandate now includes among other things the unlimited access for the Special Advisor to monitor, investigate and report on incidents of hate speech and incitement to violence and actively participate in the mission in the implementation of the ceasefire, including the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of different armed groups in South Sudan. In this case, the Security Council took the words of the Special Advisor into account and took action to protect the population of South Sudan. There are, however, two loopholes. First of all, the Security Council is not obligated to council the Special Advisor if the member states are not interested in doing so. Secondly, the member states might not vote for any action or one the permanent members can use its right to veto to uphold any action. This often happens when political interest come into play.
The most compelling example nowadays is the case of Syria. Special Advisor Adama Dieng has made fifteen public statements on the desperate situation of the civil population in Syria. He has not once been invited by the Security Council to speak about this subject. Moreover, Russia has used its veto right six times since the beginning of the conflict to uphold a UN Mission with a mandate regarding the protection of civilians or the persecution of those responsible for violence against civilians and the use of chemical weapons. China has taken the same position five times. The reason for Russia and China to do so is their political alliance with the Syrian government. If they would allow such a UN mission to be implemented, this would minimize the power of the Syrian government and thereby damage their political interested. Henceforth, the Security Council is completely paralyzed to take any action. It is undeniable that the Security Council is failing to fulfill its responsibility to protect the population of Syria.
The situation in Syria is the ultimate display that the UN system to prevent any large-scale human right violations is dependent on the political will of the members of the Security Council and primarily the permanent members. The five permanent member states can stand in the way of the protection of many innocent civilians, merely because it is against their own political interest to so, even when all the other members are of the opinion that measures are imperative to secure the safety of certain populations. It is clear that if the Security Council wants to function as is intended by its founders, the voting powers must be distributed more equitably among the UN member states. This very critical note aside, the Security Council intervenes in some situations to protect civil population when a state is unable or unwilling to protect them, as is shown in the case of South-Sudan. The following question is, of course, will this action minimize or halt the violence. The UN human right protection systems involve many other organs than the Security Council and the Special Advisor. Their role, work and the success of their actions on the ground will be discussed in the following articles of this series.