The U.N. Security Council finally reached an agreement on Syria yesterday. In typical U.N. form, it amounts to more talk than action. Russia and China acquiesced to a non-binding presidential statement calling for “a ceasefire in Syria and opening conflict areas to humanitarian aid.” The statement contains no ultimatum for the Assad regime if it does not comply—likely a concession to Russia. As the foreign minister of Turkey puts it, the statement is merely a “common message”; the council “also need(s) to work out a common action plan.”
Presidential statements lack the legally binding power of U.N. Security Council resolutions, though they require approval from all 15 Security Council members, and they become part of the council’s permanent record. As the people of Syria continue to suffer, the council has traded substance and meaningful action for a toothless statement issued for political expediency.
The Security Council’s inability to take action in the face of massive civilian bloodshed stands in stark contrast to its response last year to the mere possibility that Libya’s leaders would massacre civilians. Instead of standing up to the “bloodied” and “brutal” Assad regime, as Prime Minister David Cameron called it last week, the Security Council has failed to prevent Assad from continuing his murderous assault on civilians. The rationale the Council used to authorize an armed intervention in Libya—a principle that states have a so-called responsibility to protect (or R2P) civilians—is not being applied to Syria. Yet thousands more have been killed in Syria. The situations are different, but you would expect R2P advocates to argue that it applies to Syria if they really believe it justified the Libya action. Otherwise, they are being hypocritical.
The use of force may be impractical in Syria, but that decision should be based on the merits, not on a vaguely defined idea or doctrine. As Heritage’s Kim Holmes argues, the stark difference in how the Security Council is responding to Syria versus Libya demonstrates why R2P fails as a guide for when the “international community” should support the use of force.
Corey Gustafson is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm