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Paralysis over Syria builds pressure for reform at United Nations

Years of Security Council deadlock lead to stronger push to enlarge UN’s most powerful body, restrain use of veto

UNITED NATIONS — Since the war in Syria erupted in 2011, more than 250,000 Syrians have been killed and at least 1 million people wounded. More than 12 million people — nearly half the country — have been displaced. And yet the U.N. Security Council remains deadlocked, hamstrung by Russia’s alliance with Syria, leading to the strongest push yet at this year’s General Assembly for reform of the U.N.’s most powerful body.

“Four years ago, when I would raise the issue of veto restraint as one of our talking points, people would almost laugh you out of the room,” said Simon Adams, the director of the Global Center of the Responsibility to Protect, a New Yorked–based nonprofit. “Unfortunately, the tragedy of Syria has made the issue of the veto a real issue at the U.N. in a way that it hasn’t been since 1945.”

Calls for Security Council reform are a frequent feature of the annual General Assembly, which ends on Tuesday. This year Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Lesotho’s Prime Minister Pakalitha Bethuel Mosisili, Rui Maria De Araújo of Timor-Leste and dozens of others used their time on the podium to push for a radical overhaul of the council.

But there is widespread disagreement over how it should happen. A common refrain is for the number of permanent, veto-wielding seats — held by France, the U.K., Russia, China and the United States — to be expanded. When the United Nations was formed in 1945, only 8 percent of the world’s population was represented in its original 50 members.

Diplomats say the geopolitical reality has radically shifted in the past 70 years. Today there are 193 U.N. member states, and a number of nations — including India, Germany, Brazil and Japan — say economic power should give them a voice in global affairs. “We have today emerged as one of the world’s largest economies, and we believe that this is one reason why the Security Council should have a country like India,” said Asoke Kumar Mukerji, India’s ambassador to the U.N. “Many of the issues of peace and security directly impinge on economic development.” 

Thomas Weiss, an expert on the United Nations at the City University of New York, said increasing the number of permanent seats on the council risks making it even less productive. He pointed to the General Assembly and the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, where he said countries often use their positions to “grandstand” instead of negotiate. “Any decision that would be made would be more legitimate because there would be more people at the table … but changing it would not make it more effective. Decisions would be less likely,” he said.

How the council operates — and not just its membership — is also under intense review. In the last four years, Russia and China have used their veto power four times to block Security Council action, three times to strike down threats of sanctions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and once for a resolution that would have referred the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court for possible crimes against humanity. The United States has also used its veto to repeatedly block council action over Israel’s building of illegal settlements in the West Bank.

On Wednesday dozens of nations signed onto a French proposal that would voluntarily limit the use of the veto in the cases concerning genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes. Some 75 countries in Europe, Africa and Latin America backed the proposal. “We hope there will be more commitments to ensure that these situations — like in Syria, where there are mass atrocities and the U.N. Security Council is paralyzed by a veto — disappear,” said Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister.

Diplomats who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue with the media said that the U.K. supports the plan but has not yet publicly endorsed it but that Russia and China are against it. The office of the U.N. secretary-general, which has long been critical of Security Council inaction, backed the deal. “There are no valid reasons for obstructing action towards atrocity crimes,” Jan Eliasson, the U.N. deputy secretary-general, said on Saturday. “The moral and legal imperative that underlies this leads us to welcome the efforts to restrain the use of the veto.”

Experts say that the likelihood that the council would agree to the proposal and voluntarily given up that power is low and that the roots of inaction lie elsewhere. To some, the use of the veto reflects deeply diverging views on how international peace and security should be maintained, including over how to influence a country without being neocolonial and when to intervene when civil strife breaks out. “That is [the] issue that, frankly, most countries don’t have an answer to,” said Jean-Marie Guehenno, the director of the International Crisis Group.

Reform, he said, is “out of the realm of possible at the moment … but a conversation has started.”

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