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Saturday, February 4, 2012

Is Syria’s Sovereignty Absolute?

“Fundamentally, the argument over Syria reflects a deeper divide between those who would use the Security Council to confront nations over how their governments treat civilians, versus those who consider that it has no role whatsoever in settling domestic disputes.” On the one side, Sheik Hamad, the prime minister of Qatar, reported to the Security Council, “The government killing machine continues effectively unabated.” The implication is that people running a government do not have legitimate authority to kill over 5,000 fellow citizens.

                                    The Arab League taking on Syria at the Security Council.           Mario Tami/Getty

On the other side, the Russian envoy, Vitaly Churkin, adopted a “where will it all end” argument. The Council, he said, will start saying “what king or prime minister needs to step down. The Security Council cannot prescribe recipes for the outcome of a domestic political process.”  The Russian foreign minister added that the “Russian policy is not about asking someone to step down; regime change is not our profession.” He might have well have said, “it is none of our business whether Assad kills his people.” He did say that “the decision should be made by Syrians, by the Syrians themselves.” What he did not say is that, according to the New York Times, “Russia’s long ties to Syria generate billions of dollars in weapon sales, plus the relationship gives Moscow the entrée it needs to be at the table for Middle East peace talks. In addition, the Russian Navy deploys some ships from the Syrian port of Tartous, widening Russia’s sphere of influence into the Mediterranean.” Of course, the West has a strategic interest in toppling Assad to weaken his ally, Iran, as well as Hezbollah, which backs Assad.

Strategic interests, regardless of which side they happen to be on, should not be determinative, even as the existence of the veto in the Security Council allows them to be. The fundamental issues go beyond what fascinates an analyst, and thus should not be cut short by momentary concerns. The basic question has to do with whether “the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity” of a country, including Syria, is absolute. Can human rights legitimately counter the claim of absolutism? In other words, does a ruler have the right, internationally-speaking, to use a government’s monopoly (or at the very least, advantage) of force to kill non-violent citizens? If not, should the U.N. have the right to intercede?  These were the questions before the world in 2011, and they were no closer to being resolved as 2012 got underway at the U.N.’s Security Council.

Perhaps compromise can be found, such as having the International Criminal Court, rather than the Security Council, decide whether a ruler has violated human rights. An international code of human rights violations sufficient for a ruler to be vacated by the court would need to be formulated. Contributing forces to the enforcement effort would be required of any country that has signed onto the Court’s jurisdiction, so the U.N. need not be the instrument. However, as this compromise will have kept the Security Council from being in the regime change profession in terms of making the decision, perhaps Russia and China would agree to the U.N. serving in some capacity following the Court’s verdict.

Absent such a compromise, the question may be whether the U.N. or a new organization should limit national sovereignty where human rights of citizens are being sufficiently violated. The self-interest of rulers sitting on the Security Council may dictate that a precedent applying an international check on the power of current office-holders is undesirable. As with strategic interests, such a conflict of interest should not be allowed to interfere with, or obstruct, a decision on the fundamental question: Is national sovereignty absolute, and, if not, should the U.N. play a role in limiting it?

I suspect that “we’ll just have to agree to disagree” would be as far as discussions between the E.U. and Russia would get on the question. If so, then—and Europeans should recognize this from their own differences on the Union-level—members of the U.N. who are no longer willing to recognize national sovereignty as an absolute could form a separate “track” from the U.N. that would include a new United Nations. Members of it would of course be subject to that organization as a check. Additionally, that organization could decide to support efforts to defend human rights with military force in a country that is not a member.

I do not believe that the philosophical difference between the “absolutists” and the “human rights” camps in the Security Council is such that anything short of a split can answer the question. Lest this appear too pessimistic, a wider time-perspective could allow for a different perspective in both Moscow and Beijing. In the meantime, a coalition of the willing should not lose any time in setting up a new U.N. that includes “human rights-justified regime change” in its mission, because the existence of the veto means that the existing U.N. will remain stuck—which essentially means led by the few holdouts rather than the majority of the members. Rather than being stymied by a few members of the Security Council, each of whom retain a veto-right, the forces willing to act against peers who are systematically violating human rights should step up to the plate—assuming there really is an interest in putting human rights before absolute national sovereignty.


Neil MacFarquhar, “At U.N., Pressure Is on Russia For Refusal to Condemn Syria,” The New York Times, February 1, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/01/world/middleeast/battle-over-possible-united-nations-resolution-on-syria-intensifies.html