The Security Council’s family Christmas from hell

And it’s tidings of comfort and joy… but not for the Security Council.  On Thursday, Russia proposed an investigation into the casualties of NATO’s Libyan campaign:

Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin said a council-mandated investigation was essential “given the fact that initially we were led to believe by Nato leaders there are zero civilian casualties of their bombing campaign”.

US ambassador Susan Rice, who stepped to the microphone after Mr Churkin, responded: “Oh, the bombast and bogus claims. Is everyone sufficiently distracted from Syria now and the killing that is happening before our very eyes?  I think it’s not an exaggeration to say that this is something of a cheap stunt to divert attention from other issues and to obscure the success of Nato and its partners – and indeed the security council – in protecting the people of Libya.”

And just in case anyone had missed that episode, Russia enlivened matters on Friday by tabling the latest draft of a cunning resolution on Syria that expresses concern about the situation without imposing any penalties on Damascus.

Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Moscow had limits on how much it would accommodate the demands of the European and U.S. delegations, which would like the 15-nation council to threaten sanctions on Damascus over its nine-month-old crackdown on protesters.

“If the requirement is that we drop all reference to violence coming from extreme opposition, that’s not going to happen,” Churkin told reporters.  “If they expect us to have arms embargo, that’s not going to happen.  We know what arms embargo means these days. It means that – we saw it in Libya – that you cannot supply weapons to the government but everybody else can supply weapons to various opposition groups.”

This is like a family Christmas from hell.  If you want to understand why it’s so nasty, turn to a short paper I published with the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung this week entitled The Security Council’s Credibility Problem.  It explains how the Libyan and Syrian crises left the Council divided, with everyone having something to be cross about:

(1) Western officials believe that China and Russia’s refusal to countenance serious Council action against Syria has made the Council look impotent. They also complain that Brazil, South Africa and India have avoided tough decisions at the UN, abstaining in important votes on Libya and Syria. They conclude that these five BRICS countries are more concerned with constraining the West than resolving crises through the Council, and that giving them more power in the UN would be risky.

(2) Non-Western officials counter that the U.S. and its NATO allies did greater damage this year by converting the Council’s mandate for a humanitarian intervention in Libya as a pretext for regime change. They claim that their refusal to support even mild UN sanctions against Syria stems from the Libyan experience, and that the West cannot be trusted to implement UN mandates faithfully.

(3) For those who value the Council as a mechanism for ensuring international peace and security, the last year has been depressing for more fundamental reasons. Its limitations as a crisis management tool have been obvious. In recent years, there has been much talk in Council debates of shifting from “reaction” to “prevention”. Yet in the Libya case, its efforts to prevent the conflict escalating failed miserably and the Council’s only option was to mandate an ad hoc military campaign. It is unclear that the Council would have performed any better over Syria, even if there had been a consensus on how to act. The crises of 2011 have revealed major gaps in the Council’s capabilities.

This soap opera will, I suspect, continue to throw up surprises in 2012.