The UN Security Council (UNSC) is at a precipice. The Trump administration’s recent announcement that the US would no longer abide by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the multilateral agreement to restrict Iran’s ability to acquire and develop nuclear weapons – breaks both a UNSC agreement and UNSC procedure. Breaking the JCPOA has the potential to undermine the UNSC’s legitimacy and the important functions it serves; the value the permanent five members of the UNSC (P5) place on the UNSC as a deliberative, policy-producing body in international politics is unlikely to persist amidst repeated, major violations of UNSC agreements and procedures by the P5, with downstream consequences for a broad swathe of international peace and security outcomes.
In May the UN Security Council adopted a wide-ranging resolution designed to protect health care in conflict. On September 28, under New Zealand’s leadership, it will have a briefing and consultation on the resolution, designated 2286, including consideration of the Secretary General’s extensive recommendations for its implementation.
Although Resolution 2286 was a welcomed landmark, the upcoming discussion of next steps challenges member states to take the strong actions needed to lessen the likelihood of attacks on hospitals and health workers and to impose severe consequences on perpetrators of such attacks. But the session represents more than that: After the paralysis the Security Council has exhibited in light of the horrific, relentless attack on an aid convey in Syria on September 20, the very credibility of the Council is at stake.
Investigating the use of chemical weapons
The first inquiry into the use of chemical weapons (CW) in Syria was the United Nations Secretary-General’s Mechanism (SGM) for Investigation of Alleged use of Chemical and Biological Weapons. Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1987, and endorsed by the Security Council (Resolution 620) a year later, the SGM enables the Secretary-General to carry out investigations in response to any UN Member State reporting possible violations of the 1925 Protocol or other relevant rules of customary international law.
The SGM was trigged in March 2013 after Syria (a State Party to the Geneva Protocol) reported allegations of CW use in the Khan al-Asal area of the Aleppo Governorate, for which Syria’s government and opposition blamed each other. A team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the World Health Organization (WHO) was assembled and remained on standby in Cyprus until the terms of reference between the UN and Syria were agreed on. The holdup was a difference of opinion on the scope of the investigation: the UN argued that all credible claims of CW use reported by other Member States should also be investigated while Syria argued that only the March 19 Khan al-Asal attacks should be examined. In the end, the SGM team was dispatched to Syria in August 2013 to investigate Khal al-Asal and two other incidents at Sheik Maqsood and Saraqueb. Three days after their arrival, allegations of CW use in the Ghouta area of Damascus led the team to prioritise the most recent allegations.
Earlier this week, a damning report from advocacy group The Syria Campaign accused the United Nations of breaching its humanitarian principles by prioritizing cooperation with the Assad government “at all costs.” This is not the first time that such charges have been leveled. An internal inquiry into the UN’s response to the final days of the decades-long Sri Lankan civil war found that officials privileged maintaining good relations with the Colombo regime over their responsibilities to protect human rights.
What is more, the UN has recently been at the receiving end of an avalanche of revelations that it has succumbed to pressure from it member states over its reporting and language:
- Australia lobbied hard to ensure that UNESCO removed the Great Barrier Reef from a list of endangered world heritage sites, despite near universal consensus among scientists studying the reef that it is, indeed, deeply at risk as a result of climate change and runoffs from coastal farms and industrial plants.
- Saudi Arabia threatened to defund UN programs, and to encourage other Islamic countries to do the same, if the UN did not remove a report’s references to patterns of violations against children in Yemen committed by the Saudi-led coalition.
- Morocco threatened to withdraw support for UN operations in retaliation for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon referring to Western Sahara as “occupied,” despite the fact that this is precisely the legal situation in that part of the world until a referendum on its future can be held.
- Myanmar insisted that UN officials refrain from using the term “Rohingya” to refer to an ethnic minority in that country and has threatened to withdraw cooperation with any that do. Some, such as the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy Satish Nambiar, have complied with the regime’s demand, overlooking the right of groups to self-identify. Others, such as Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Yanghee Lee continue to use the label and have faced vilification because of it.
The United Nations was created to foster peace and stability among nations and promote economic prosperity and social justice for all. Seventy years later, there is a shared sense that the global structures entrusted with peace and security are not keeping pace with today’s more complex and interconnected world, where local problems have global dimensions and where the monopoly of violence is no longer the sole preserve of states—a world where the nature of peace and conflict is challenging the analytical frameworks, norms, and paradigms that have been painstakingly fashioned over the past two decades.
The three major peace and security reviews conducted in 2015 have taken stock of the changing global environment; analyzed UN responses; and come up with several key policy messages, as well as a number of complementary recommendations which, if implemented, could help the UN peace and security architecture be better fit for purpose.