Civilians: The Ultimate Victims of the Veto

While the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has been gaining traction, particularly with its recent implementation in Libya, the international community is still a far cry from actualizing the doctrine's true potential. Beyond the obvious difficulty of motivating states into a coordinated action, there are additional factors that continually block the implementation of R2P in particular and civilian protection in general.

The most obvious hindrance to civilian protection, which has been garnering quite a bit of debate, is the use of the veto among the Permanent Five (P5) members of the United Nations Security Council. This is of utmost concern in cases of genocide and crimes against humanity. The P5 veto power has stood as one of the major barriers to a full intervention in Sudan. In this case, both China and the Russian Federation have exerted their veto power, while the United States has chosen abstention rather than casting a vote. Between China's oil connections, Russia's arms deals, and the U.S.'s political maneuvering, political game play has won out over the lives of civilians. This is precisely what happens when states that favor non-intervention are given the ultimate power to veto resolutions on intervention.

To clarify, what the UN has is a P5 made up of countries whose notions of sovereignty reek of Westphalian ideals. These states would rather maintain their stance of non-intervention than protect the lives of innocent civilians. For a strong state such as China, to allow intervention would in effect limit its own power. Further, a strong state might suggest that in imposing R2P on Syria it is opening the doors to its own borders as well. In other words, any resolution coming through the Security Council that can be seen as a threat to sovereignty will have an uphill battle.

This month, the veto was used to block intervention in Syria, where civilians are being viciously targeted by their government. There is an undeniable need for civilian protection, particularly in the city of Homs, yet the Arab League's Peace Plan was again blocked by China and the Russian Federation. There has been an outcry by the other members of the Security Council; however, the two states are holding their ground. While the decision to veto is not surprising, it remains disheartening and highlights an ongoing problem within the Security Council.

In 2010, the group Citizens for Global Solutions published a white paper titled: “The Responsibility Not to Veto: A Way Forward.” This paper discusses the notion of RN2V, a principle meant to work alongside R2P, which calls on the P5 to agree not to use their veto power in cases of genocide and crimes against humanity. In short, it doesn't demand a change in regulations, but simply a good faith promise by the states. Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, echoed their sentiment in an interview stating, "There is a need for a new norm at the UN Security Council that the permanent members will not use their veto in situations where mass atrocities are being committed."

Ultimately, it is time for a real discussion to be had within the Security Council, and perhaps the General Assembly as a whole, as to how the UN can better deal with matters of civilian protection. There is a need to create an environment conducive to building the political will to act among member states, rather than one that deters action. If the UN continues along this same path, the lives of civilians will hang in the balance as the P5 debates whether assisting them is a threat to their own power. With so many tools at its disposal to prevent and respond to atrocities, it is discouraging that the UN is so often unable to put them into use. Let's hope that a discourse can begin and progress can be made.

Follow Corrie on Twitter @corrie_hulse

R2P, Sudan, Syria, United Nations