The United Nations Security Council has reverted to its usual modus operandi: inaction. On April 27th, after receiving a detailed report by the UN’s Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs, Lynn Pascoe, on the violence unleashed by the Syrian government against its own people, the council members were unable to agree on a simple press statement calling on the Syrian government to stop its brutality.
In his briefing to the Security Council, Pascoe noted that the anti-government demonstrations in Syria had started in mid-March, following the detention of fifteen schoolchildren in Deraa for anti-government graffiti, and gradually increased in geographic scope and participation. The protests began with demands for greater freedom and political and economic reforms and eventually included calls for the regime’s downfall. The Syrian authorities had reacted with a mix of ‘reform’ gestures, and increasingly violent repression. Despite the promise of reform, the government crackdown had dramatically intensified, Pascoe reported. As a result, more than 100 persons were killed across the country from Friday April 22nd to Sunday April 24th alone, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Pascoe went on to say that the overwhelming majority of protests had been peaceful, but there were also credible reports of a very few instances where protesters had used force, resulting in some deaths of security forces. Despite the Syrian government’s attempt to place the blame for the violence entirely on the protesters’ shoulders, however, Pascoe said there were no reports suggesting that violence from the protester side was a recurring phenomenon.
The Security Council members listened to Pascoe, but the result was pre-ordained. Under Security Council rules, all fifteen members must approve in order for a press statement to be issued in the name of the council. In this case, Lebanon refused to go along with any press release for fear of offending Syria.
While Russia and China expressed caution in light of the interventions in Libya and the Ivory Coast under Security Council auspices that they believed went too far, Security Council sources have told UN reporters that Russia and China were at least willing to negotiate the wording of a press statement. However, the Lebanese UN ambassador reportedly had instructions from his government not to agree to any Security Council press statement, knowing that the unanimity rule would protect Syria from any official Security Council criticism.
Syria’s UN Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari told members of the Security Council during the open meeting, repeating a claim he had made previously to UN reporters outside the Security Council chamber, that the current violence in Syria was perpetrated by extremist groups, whose fundamental objective was the fall of the Syrian government. He blamed the deaths of innocent civilians and of security forces on these armed extremists. And he repeated the mantra that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was a “reformer” – a term that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself used about a month ago to describe the dictator.
Bashar Ja’afari rejected the idea of an independent international investigation and even went so far as to claim that statements heard from certain Security Council members – presumably referring specifically to the United States – could only be considered as an incitement to violence and terrorism. In her public statement shortly before the Syrian ambassador’s remarks, Ambassador Susan Rice had accused the Syrian government of accepting assistance from Iran and using the same brutal tactics as that regime.
The Syrian ambassador responded to the Iranian connection charge by characterizing it as a “Hollywoodian” attempt to link the two countries, which he asserted “did not respect the Security Council’s status and clearly showed the true negative intent of the United States towards Syria.”
Finally, the Syrian ambassador added that “with the end of the age of colonialism, the world’s peoples now recognized that some States were trying to interfere in the affairs of others under the rubric of the ‘responsibility to protect’ and humanitarian intervention.” How a simple press release, and nothing more, would constitute interference or intervention, the Syrian ambassador did not say.
Lebanon’s UN Ambassador Nawaf Salam explained that there were “special links between his country and Syria due to history and common fraternal interests, as well as mutual security concerns.”
Exactly what “special links” does Ambassador Salam have in mind, considering that Syria has been implicated in the assassination of the former Prime Minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri? One might think that many people in Lebanon who are concerned about Lebanon’s independence would want to distance themselves from the Syrian government. That might have been true before Hezbollah, Iran’s terrorist arm in Lebanon, engineered the collapse of the ruling coalition headed by Rafik Hariri’s son, Saad Hariri, leaving a caretaker government that effectively reflects Hezbollah’s Syria-friendly agenda. Syria is strategically important to Iran as a conduit for transporting arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon for use against Israel.
Adding to the disgrace of Security Council paralysis, Syria is currently likely to be elected to the UN Human Rights Council unless there is a last minute successful effort to stop them. While the Human Rights Council is scheduled to discuss Syria during a special session, the Arab League has indicated its support for having Syria join the Human Rights Council in May.
At the United Nations, if you have the right friends, you not only get shielded from the consequences of your human rights violations. You get a seat of honor on the UN’s Human Rights Council.