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 Somini Sengupta


Since the beginning of the year, the Security Council has discussed Syria no fewer than 18 times and devoted 13 more sessions to Ukraine.

That remains about the most substantive action the Council has taken to resolve the conflicts, which flourish unabated. The Council has come up with no diplomatic road maps. In the case of Syria, Russia has vetoed three resolutions in three years.

The Council has been dismissed as toothless before, precisely over the right of its five permanent members to block any measure with a veto. But the paralysis over Syria has marked a new level of dysfunction, experts say, and has given a fillip to those who call for a fundamental shake-up of the Council’s composition and rules of engagement.

It is not just that the Council has failed to halt the civil war, but that it has been unable even to deliver humanitarian supplies like food and medicine to millions of Syrians in need. Instead, Russia and its Western rivals have spent months trading blame over who is blocking aid, all the while failing to persuade their allies on the ground to open a humanitarian corridor.

“We are back to the bleakest and blackest days of the Security Council since the Cold War,” said Jan Egeland, a former United Nations humanitarian relief coordinator who now runs the Norwegian Refugee Council.

The frustration is echoed by diplomats inside the Security Council. “Let’s not be naïve about saving lives. How about helping a little bit?” said one Council member, speaking on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic protocol. “All we do is talk. It is frustrating.”

In the past year, the Council has talked about Syria at least 33 times, according to Security Council Report, which monitors the proceedings. The threat of a Russian veto has held up a resolution with enforcement language.

Since 1990, the United States has cast a veto on Council resolutions 16 times, while Russia has done so 11 times. France has proposed limiting the use of the veto; none of the other permanent members have commented publicly.

At the same time, numerous proposals about expanding the Council’s membership to reflect the changes in global power dynamics since the end of World War II have been floated. None have been adopted.

Meanwhile, in Syria, human rights abuses continue, with no sign of agreement among Council members on whether to refer the country to the International Criminal Court. A celebrated agreement on dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons program has not addressed the main killers in the country — guns, bombs, and starvation. The Council has also failed to address a new crisis the World Health Organization says demands immediate action: the outbreak of polio. Truckloads of wheat, antibiotics and blankets remain stuck at Syria’s borders.

As if in a nod to its fecklessness, Britain said this week that it would prioritize its funding to nongovernmental agencies that can enter Syria without government consent, rather than to United Nations groups.

David M. Malone, a Canadian diplomat who has written three books about the Council, said it is not without successes, like authorizing a peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, though it has been “useless for now” on Syria. “Even in these distressing times,” he said, “it is functioning more actively than during the Cold War, small praise though that is.”

Paralysis on the 15-member Council came into sharp relief last week when the United Nations humanitarian relief coordinator, Valerie Amos, said the warring parties in Syria had flouted the Council’s trumpeted resolution urging access to aid convoys. Government forces continued to drop barrel bombs, causing indiscriminate casualties. Medicines were removed from aid convoys. A resolution calling for aid to be delivered safely had failed, Ms. Amos told the Council.

Western diplomats warned in late February that they would take “further steps” in case of noncompliance with the aid delivery measure. None have been taken to date, though closed-door discussions are underway.

Antonio de Aguiar Patriota, ambassador of Brazil, which has advocated Council expansion, said its dysfunction stemmed from the inability of the five permanent members to “communicate across trench lines.”

“The atmosphere within the P-5 is one of distrust and entrenched differences or divergences,” he said, “without anyone who can come in and try to create an atmosphere conducive to consensus.”

Difficulties with Council diplomacy are best illustrated by the journey of Resolution 2139, which sought to make it easier for United Nations convoys to deliver aid, but without the muscle of Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, which allows for the use of force to back up Council decisions. The idea was first floated last spring by Australia and Luxembourg, which held two-year rotating seats on the Council. It went nowhere for months. At the time, the United States and Russia were far more invested in efforts to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table.

Then came the chemical weapons attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in August, which killed an estimated 1,400 civilians. Diplomatic energy turned to dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, culminating in a deal between Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, and Secretary of State John Kerry, followed by a Security Council resolution in late September.

Council diplomats tried to seize on the rare unity to advance a measure on humanitarian access. A draft resolution was passed around, but the Kremlin rejected it. Without Russian backing, United Nations officials knew, there was no chance of persuading the Syrian government to let them deliver supplies where they were most needed. No one on the Council insisted on a resolution with enforcement language. “It was important to adopt a gradual approach,” a second Council diplomat said. “Russia would say no.”

In early October came an anemic compromise: a Council statement, with no force of international law, politely asking the warring parties not to block aid convoys. It was ignored.

By early this year, with pressure from Arab states came a new movement to resurrect the aid measure. Jordan, which represented the Arab states on the Council, joined Australia and Luxembourg in drafting a new text.


On Feb. 22, during the Winter Olympics in Sochi and with world attention on Russia, the resolution was fast-tracked. To mollify Russia — and to a lesser extent China — diplomats excised language that threatened enforcement under Chapter VII of the Charter. They also specifically worded it so that United Nations convoys had to have Syria’s permission to enter. It was a nod to the country’s sovereignty. It was also a way to ensure failure: The government has not given permission, and without it, aid agencies have said they cannot enter.

In March, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, vented her frustration: “There’s nothing that I can do, and that we can do unilaterally, to make the Council do what we want.”

What most rattles humanitarian agencies is the contrast between how rigorously the chemical weapons accord has been obeyed and how blatantly the humanitarian access measure has been flouted. “Diplomacy has been extraordinarily successful in doing away with one percent of the problem, which was chemical weapons,” Mr. Egeland of the Norwegian Refugee Council said.

The Council’s difficulties in stanching the crisis in Syria has tarnished the reputation of the world body, diplomats say.

“It goes to the core of what people expect the U.N. to do,” Christian Wenewaser, the ambassador for Liechtenstein, said. “There is a level of frustration that hasn’t been there for a while. People are, in a way, questioning what they’re doing".




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