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Sunday, February 19, 2012

UN’s General Assembly as Nonbinding on Syria

According to the New York Times, “In a powerful rebuke to Syria’s government, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly on [February 16, 2012] to approve a resolution that condemned President Bashar al-Assad’s unbridled crackdown on an 11-month-old uprising and called for his resignation under an Arab League peace proposal to resolve the conflict.” The reporter immediately undercuts his use of powerful by observing that the 137-12 vote (with 17 abstentions) is “a nonbinding action with no power of enforcement at the world body.” The “action” does represent “a significant humiliation” for Assad. I doubt very much if he felt humiliated. His UN ambassador “denounced the resolution as a politically motivated scheme to intervene in Syria by the Western powers and others who ‘would like to settle accounts with Syria.’” Altogether, the first two or three paragraphs of Gladstone’s article can be read in terms of logic as “X, not X.” Of course, the first X gets more attention, so the article gives the impression that the UN did something powerful when in fact the exercise was one of exposing the impotence of the world body.

That the resolutions of the General Assembly are nonbinding even for the UN is perhaps the epitome of self-emasculation. That the Security Council, on which just a fraction of the UN’s 193 members sit at any time, could have resolutions binding on the UN while the GA, on which every member sits, is allowed only non-binding “actions” suggests a democracy deficit in the UN itself—or at the very least a serious problem of priorities. The UN would have more legitimacy were its resolutions that are binding on itself voted on by all of the members—none of which having a veto and thus able to dominate the world body. This change would hardly be earth-shattering, as even “binding” resolutions have trouble finding enough respect to be acted on unless by certain members having a strategic geo-political interest in “volunteering” on the enforcement end. It is striking how Assad’s government can kill over 5000 citizens—whom Gladstone curiously refers to as “an uprising” as if Assad had met rather than led with weapons—and still be a valid member of the UN. I’m not convinced that unconditional love should apply to the organization that has a declaration of human rights, after all.

Therefore, rather than being “powerful” or “humiliating,” the nonbinding resolution of the UN’s General Assembly makes transparent just how bad that world body’s inherent flaws are. This conclusion is utterly hidden in the title that Gladstone went with: “General Assembly Votes to Condemn Syrian Leader.” A better, more realistic title would have been: “A lot of UN members mad at Syrian Government.” Let’s not gild the lily. With global warming and nuclear proliferation each being a viable threat to the continuance of our species, not to mention ourselves in particular regions, we can no longer afford to rely on the UN.

I envision a new world body with a General Assembly capable of enacting resolutions that are binding for still-existing members, none of which has a veto, and a Security Council consisting of rotating members that meets only to handle emergencies (again, no veto). The GA would be authorized to instruct the Security Council how to implement enforcement, using members as it will. Of course, countries would be free to leave the body and face isolation with respect to the benefits that membership provides. Behind this new organization is the realization that our species has stepped onto new land in the twenty-first century. This is not exactly a brave new world of terra firma (the frozen tundra melting in fact). We as a species now know that we can put our entire lot at risk.

We are even beginning to suspect that the historical absolutist interpretation of national sovereignty is now too dangerous, given what damage we can inflict on each other and on our species itself. Even for people not buying into this “new era” thinking, it must be obvious that the UN is an embarrassment and an utter failure with respect to protecting human rights and even ourselves from ourselves. Even just on the surface, a resolution that is non-binding even for the body that does the resolving suggests that the body itself is seriously flawed and deserves to be replaced. Yet as apparent as this reasoning may be, politicians are typically creatures of the status quo and won’t likely make a peep—preferring instead to cite Gladstone’s report of the “powerful rebuke.” Both the rebuke and Gladstone's characterization evince a case of the blind leading the blind. The beguiled followers blindly put still more clothes on the emperor while congratulating themselves on such a fine appearance having been achieved. “It looks good to me,” one blind man says to another. “I quite agree,” the other replies. All the while, the world sleeps, dreaming that it is wide awake.

Rick Gladstone, “General Assembly Votes to Condemn Syrian Leader,” The New York Times, February 17, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/17/world/middleeast/secretary-general-ban-ki-moon-castigates-syria-ahead-of-general-assembly-vote.html