Exceptionalism, Hegemony and the UNSC Godfathers
The United Nations secretary general Ban Ki Moon recently announced that the much awaited upcoming report on whether chemical weapons were used in Syria would indeed confirm that they were used. He also stated that President Bashar Al Assad had already committed many crimes against humanity. He did not go so far as to accuse the Syrian government of the recent 21st August chemical weapons attack, but the implication of the remark is significant.
A few days ago, the Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, warning the USA to respect the United Nations Security Council as the main authority that decides when, and when not, war can be waged in a non-self defence capacity by any nation. He also implored the USA to guard against inadvertently supporting Al Qaeda militants, who supplement the ranks of the opposition to the Syrian government (even though the extent of their involvement is disputed). He ended by mounting a scathing attack on the notion of “American exceptionalism”, which allows the USA to justify taking unilateral action on global issues of critical importance to planetary security and stability.
Putin made no mention of the deadlock that arrests the UNSC whenever conflict plays out in drastic and brutal measure, and requires an international response. Very rarely, if ever, do the Russians and Chinese see ‘eye to eye’ with the USA on what course of action is necessary or appropriate in these circumstances. Essentially, issues that arise over global and regional security concerns become ‘political footballs’ with which the small pool of key actors in the struggle for global domination play out their struggle to dominate each other. In the quest for power, the focus on what is best for a particular country or region is lost, and instead, a shameful display of chest beating emerges and takes centre stage, as the divisions in the security council play out.
Syria and Syrians - who have endured 100,000 deaths, 4 million internally displaced persons and 2 million refugees who have fled across the border, as well as chemical weapons, open warfare with conventional weapons in the streets of its cities and neighbourhoods, summary executions, torture, suppression of the press, siege and starvation conditions, the suppression of the press, and possibly myriad other crimes against humanity that will be revealed years after the conflict has ended - seem to be on the fringes of the spat that is playing out between China and Russia (and BRICS nations) on the one side, and the USA and France on the other. More recently, the Netherlands has thrown its weight behind the USA-France coalition.
So with Russia casting itself as the protector of the role of the United Nations and the rule of international law, it itself is then bound to act within the framework of the United Nations and international law. Surely this would also imply that if the Syrian government, admittedly a close ally and one of the last footholds of Russia’s regional power in the Middle East, were accused of being guilty of crimes against humanity by the highest authority in the United Nations (Ban Ki Moon), that it is then Russia’s duty to respect, or at the very least entertain the position of the United Nations.
But so far, Russia has refused to acknowledge that the Syrian government has committed war crimes, and has used chemical weapons, and has instead emphasized that its intelligence (i.e. Russia’s) indicates that the opposition is a hotbed of Al-Qaeda jihadists and Islamic extremists, and has accused the opposition of deploying chemical weapons in its own rebel-held territories to manufacture consent for an international intervention. In this, Russia is engaging in duplicitous diplomacy, and is in essence rejecting the UN-held position that the Syrian government is responsible for crimes against humanity. In essence, Russia is adopting a stance which emphasizes its very own sense of ‘exceptionalism’. All that this reveals, is that Russia is equally prone to the very same hegemonic narrative that proponents of global hegemony adopt, when it suits their interests.
Bashar Al Assad has presided over the greatest human-induced tragedy of the 21st Century thus far. It does indeed set a precedent for how the international community will handle such events in the future. A key question in this regard is, how far have we come in respect of ensuring that genocides, unjust wars and crimes against humanity are stopped while they are occurring? The biggest lament in respect of these tragedies – i.e. such as Kosovo and Rwanda – is that action is always taken too late, and that great loss of life ensues in the interim period where global power politics takes centre stage instead of the people who are being directly affected. Something is not working in the construction and the role of the UNSC. It is time to admit that and correct it. I would go further, and state that the UNSC needs to be drastically revised in terms of composition and that the right to veto is accompanied by the need to take responsibility and face penalties, in particular; when veto action results in the further facilitation, perpetuation and/or escalation of human tragedy.
In particular, any ‘godfather’ type protection afforded to states that commit crimes against humanity, by an ally in the UN needs to be acknowledged and prosecuted accordingly. It cannot be acceptable that a state can be accused of “crimes against humanity” by the highest authority in the UN, and at the same time receive protection by a UNSC member who goes further to dispute that these crimes are being committed by its ally. If Russia has clear evidence that the Al Assad government is innocent of these crimes then it should – as it required of the USA – make this evidence available to the UN and the UNSC members. Fair is fair, and if Russia argues that its only intention is to uphold international law and protect the role of the UN and UNSC, then it itself must abide by the findings and pronouncements of the UN, even when it disagrees with it.
The Russian attempt to thwart military strikes by the US on Syria has taken the form of a deal to get Syria to give up its chemical weapons for destruction. However, this has very quickly morphed into a protracted negotiations over what the conditions for disarmament would be. Syria now wants to be in charge of destroying its own chemical weapons stockpile. It also wants a guarantee that it will not be attacked by the USA if it gives up its weapons. Pretty soon, we will yet again be trapped in a series of scuppered disarmament processes a-la Saddam Hussein. It is clear that this whole charade is just an attempt to ensure that the imminent attack on Syria is thwarted, and to buy time so that the Syrian government can intensify its attacks on rebel held territories and positions. In all likelihood, the real calculation that is unfolding here, is how much time is required to obliterate and crush the rebels and opposition groups to the Syrian government. The Syrian government is hoping for a distraction, and the disarmament agenda is an ideal decoy. While the world will become locked, entangled and embroiled in negotiations with a government that has already committed numerous crimes against humanity over the course of the civil war thus far, it will continue to intensify its own activities.
On the other hand, the USA – now minus its own exceptionalism – will also ‘win’ its own victory. Obama can rightfully claim that he used the ‘threat of force’ effectively in this situation. If the goal is to rid Al Assad’s government of its chemical weapons, so that the potential of a regional escalation is reduced, then the USA has been very successful indeed. It has managed to get Syria to hand over its weapons without firing a single bullet, let alone a cruise or tomahawk missile. The political spin machines will have no problem turning this into a victory for the new mode of American exceptionalism; Obama’s threat of force and brinkmanship will be hailed as a new, cost effective method of enforcement. The USA is still the policeman of the world, and Russia has successfully cast itself as a protector of international law and the UN. Everybody wins, except the Syrians that this is all supposed to protect, that is.
What is clear, from recent events, including the Russian attempt to get Syria to give up and destroy its chemical weapons, is that the UNSC is a symbol of global ‘exceptionalism’ itself. It is a group of godfathers who decide for the world. Their battle for domination in a new world order is what drives global political wrangling over issues that are critical for global security and humanitarianism. It isn’t working for those who are dying, on both sides of the Syrian conflict. As a global community, we need an alternative and a new way of going about solving conflict-driven humanitarian crises that are of global importance. The movement of cold war actors into a ‘cold peace’ of sorts has done little to improve the effectiveness of the UNSC in resolving critical security and humanitarian issues. Instead, we’ve dragged a dysfunctional unit of the past too far with us. It’s time to seriously call into question the whole concept of the UNSC itself, and to decide what reforms, or even complete overhauls are necessary to improve the ability of the international community to act when it is needed to prevent loss of life.
As we enter a new era of global politics and global community and society, some critical thought needs to be given to what serves our interests best as a global community. Sovereignty must be respected, but so must international law and standards. We have the power to decide what kind of world we live in, and how best to handle our differences, as well as conflict driven humanitarian crises. Global institutions need to be constructed in such a manner that they reflect the new era we have entered into, so that they can be more effective in addressing conflict driven humanitarian crises as they occur, and not after they’ve occurred.
Undoubtedly, there will always be skilful actors who attempt to sway decisions one way or another in order to maintain or boost their influence on the global stage, but for the global community to be held hostage in this manner, while another global humanitarian disaster continues un-attended is disgraceful and unacceptable. Whatever ‘success’ stories are spun out as a result of the most recent turn of events in the Syrian war (i.e. giving up its chemical weapons; a big success for both the USA and Russia), the real losers are the Syrian people, and ultimately it is the failure to protect innocent people on both sides of the conflict from further suffering is what the UN and the UNSC will be judged on.