The United Nations and Syria

Whenever the United Nations deploys a peacekeeping operation, it is quick to receive criticism. The same old song is sung about what a waste of space the United Nations is as an organization because it fails to achieve the quick and decisive results people seem to expect. These public expectations seem to look for action more along the lines of the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011.

This criticism was again quick to surface recently with the Kofi Annan peace plan for Syria, which was launched in February 2012. But much of this criticism seems to me to be unwarranted and founded on an ignorance or misunderstanding regarding the role of the United Nations in peacekeeping operations. This article is an attempt to offer some clarity on this point.

The United Nations was born out of the cooperation and discussions between the ‘Big Three’ (Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin) during the Second World War as a plan to prevent such a conflict occurring again. In 1945 the Charter of the UN established procedures for international action to deal with conflict between states. The foundation stone of any UN action, however, is respect for the sovereignty of the state. An important safeguard built into the UN system for intervention is the power of the veto in the Security Council.

The Cold War, which dominated the United Nation’s first 4 decades, impaired the Organization’s ability to use the procedures laid down in the Charter as, while there was no direct fighting between the 2 power blocs, there were many conflicts throughout the world with the East supporting one side and the West the other. In this situation it was rarely possible for the Security Council to agree on the use of UN intervention as each side could veto a proposal that it considered damaging to its protégés. We have seen the same situation played out with Russia’s opposition to any UN operation in Syria utilizing ‘coercive force.’

When the Cold War ended, peacekeeping operations multiplied with mixed result, and have certainly not proved a quick solution to the problems between nations or within states. Again this is rooted in the UN Charter’s respect for sovereignty. UN peacekeeping involves the deployment, with the consent of the two parties, of military personnel under UN command, to help stop the fighting and thus create the conditions necessary for political negotiations.

It is important to realize that the deployment of troops by the UN, with the consent of the hostile parties, was neither originally specifically provided for in the Charter nor contrary to its original provisions. During the Cold War this suited the Russians well as it enabled them to question the legitimacy of peacekeeping operations or support them when it suited their purpose or was desired by their friends in the Third World. It was not till 1992, after the collapse of Communism in the Soviet bloc, that the first ever Security Council meeting at the level of heads of state and government asked the then newly elected Boutros-Ghali to prepare recommendations on strengthening the UN’s capacity ‘for preventive diplomacy, for peacemaking and for peacekeeping. The framework has since been developed by Boutros-Ghali, and many others, who have studied the successes and failures of various peacekeeping operations during this period following the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe.

Today the UN’s range of action in relation to conflict includes: peacemaking, peacekeeping and peace-building interventions, all of which can be done only with the consent of the hostile parties; and sanctions and peace enforcement, which are forms of coercion and by definition do not require the consent of the party against which they are used, but can be vetoed by members of the Security Council. In this light, because Russia is opposed to the use of coercive intervention in Syria, the only option open to the UN was a peacekeeping operation.

In detail, a peacekeeping operation includes military personnel, and often police as well, who are made available to the UN by their governments (The UN has no army of its own). The operation is established by the Security Council. It is placed under the command of the Secretary General who is required to report regularly to the Council. It is deployed with the consent of the parties to an actual or potential conflict and is required to be neutral and impartial between them. If the deployed UN force is armed, it will be authorised to use its arms only in self-defence. Its tasks, or ‘mandate,’ are agreed in advance with the parties. The costs of the operation, including some reimbursement of costs incurred by the troop-contributing governments, are apportioned amongst all the member states of the United Nations.

In traditional peacekeeping the task is to ensure that the fighting does not re-start and to work in other ways to create the necessary conditions for the negotiation of a lasting settlement of the dispute that has led to the conflict. They monitor cease-fires, control buffer zones, verify compliance with provisional agreements and endeavour to build confidence between the parties.

The main problems facing a peacekeeping operation occur if the parties start fighting again. Not only does this remove the political and operational basis for the peacekeepers’ presence; it also exposes them to humiliation and danger. Another problem occurs if the peacekeepers do their peacekeeping well but the parties make no progress towards a negotiated settlement. As a result the parties may lose confidence in the peace process and resume fighting, or the governments paying for the peacekeeping operation, or providing the troops, my develop ‘donor fatigue’ and withhold or withdraw their support.

In short, a peacekeeping operation does not bring about a lasting peace of itself. It simply tries to enforce the conditions to allow the two parties in the conflict to talk and negotiate a peaceful solution to their conflict. If the will is not there on both parties, there is nothing the UN peacekeepers can do to bring about peace.

The Kofi Annan peace plan for Syria was considered the most serious international attempt to resolve the Syrian uprising in the Middle East diplomatically. The peace plan enforced a cease-fire to take place across Syria from the 10th of April 2012, though in reality the cease-fire was announced by the Syrian government on the 14th of April. It was hoped that this would allow the antagonists to come to the negotiating table and agree to bring about an end to the fighting. But the Houla massacre that left more than 100 people dead, half of them children (one of the worst atrocities in the 15-month-long conflict) and the consequent Free Syrian Army (FSA) ultimatum to the Syrian government, caused the ceasefire to collapse towards the end of May. Following this the FSA began a nation-wide offensive against the government troops. Given the removal of the political and operational basis for the peacekeepers’ presence, and the danger it exposed the peacekeepers to, the operation was terminated.

Mr. Annan and his colleagues at the UN have continued to assert that their plan for Syria, in which all sides lay down their weapons, is the only realistic choice. This position has been criticized as misguided by those who say a more muscular approach in Syria is required from the United States and its allies. Given Russia’s opposition, and the US reluctance to get involved financially or militarily in yet another complex conflict, especially in an election year, the UN has been put in an utterly impossible situation to bring about peace.

These are complicated situations, and the UN, which is necessarily restricted by its Charter so as to provide a place of negotiation, cannot provide a quick and easy solution as would seem to be expected by the global public. We could argue the origins of such expectations in our world of instant communication, but that is beyond the scope of this article. What I hope this article communicates is that it is unreasonable to expect the UN to do more than it is mandated to do, and unfair to criticize it as the scapegoat for our frustrations and fears. It is the best we have at present and offers, at least, a place where negotiation is given a chance and nations can talk to each other and try to seek solutions for what are very complex problems.


About Passionist JPIC Australia

I am a priest with the Passionist Congregation and a part of our Australian Province which includes Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam. I have been ordained since December of 1992. I was born in the Philippines, though am from Spanish decent. I came to Australia in 1972 with my family when I was 11 years old, and we settled in Brisbane. That is where I did the rest of my growing up. On completing high school, I went to Queensland University where I studied for 4 years, completing a B.Sc. with a major in Microbiology. The following year I decided to enter into the Passionist Congregation to study for the priesthood. I trained for 9 years, and have been a priest for 25 years. In my time as a priest I have been Director of the Passionist Family Group Movement in Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland; conducted over 400 Parish Missions all around Australia and New Zealand, but particularly in Victoria and Western Australia; worked in adult faith education, Sacramental preparation for children and parents; Hospital chaplaincy; High school chaplaincy, in-services and retreats. In the year 200 I became engaged in developing young adult retreat teams and training them to carry on our high school retreat programs. I am also chair of our Province’s committee for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation (JPIC). I am also a member of ACRATH (Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans).
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One Response to The United Nations and Syria

  1. Nicole says:

    On my recent visit to Chicago I meintoned that I may need to travel to developing country for work. I was asked if that was not a bit dangerous and responded that I felt more at risk being in Chicago. This normally intelligent person did not see their question as being in any way incongruous with the high murder rate in Chicago. I’ve been wondering when the travel warnings against the US will start. I think until that or the UN gets involved, people will continue to ignore what is right under their noses.

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