UN Security Council has no responsibility to protect citizens behind state borders
Opinion: Fear that international system will be weakened by rash of interventions
The UN’s main responsibility is to maintain international peace, not to protect citizens from their rulers. Photograph: Gettty Images
The United Nations Security Council is, in many ways, an affront to democracy. It is after all, a self-appointed club of the strong and mighty with occasional, temporary membership extended to some poor cousins.
Democracy comes in many forms, but generally it is concerned with the principles of self-determination, participation, representation and rights. In its actions on the Syrian crisis so far, the Security Council has shown little interest in these things, or at least the Syrian people’s stake in them. But amidst the British parliament’s frustration of prime minister Cameron and US president Obama’s frustration at the Security Council’s “complete paralysis”, it is often forgotten that none of these are part of its charge.
Under article 24 of the United Nations Charter, the Security Council’s primary responsibility is for the “maintenance of international peace and security”. It says nothing about ethnic cleansing or civil war, nothing about genocide or mass rape, nothing about the lives of citizens behind state borders. It can be thought of as a police officer investigating a domestic disturbance, but one that is very rarely permitted to ‘enter the property’. Its main priority, above all else, is to prevent that domestic disturbance from spilling out onto the street.
The reason for this is sovereignty. Like democracy, this comes in many forms, but is generally synonymous with control, the inviolability of state borders and a monopoly on the use of force. “You stay on your side of the line, I’ll stay on mine and nobody will get hurt”, goes the logic.
In 1648, the Peace of Westphalia formalised this concept, but war between states remained a feature of international relations. After the second World War, the world’s leaders came together to form the United Nations. Among other things, they determined to “live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, and to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security”.
For the most part this seems to have worked, at least well enough to prevent a third outbreak of global conflict. Because the UN’s architects adopted the Westphalian concept of sovereignty however, instead of the popular one in which it is conditional upon agreement of a ‘social contract’ between government and the governed, it has been less successful in addressing conflict within them.
Crux of the problem
Former Nato secretary general Javier Solana summed up the problem in a 1998 speech at a symposium on the ‘Continuing Political Relevance of the Peace of Westphalia’, in which he noted that “humanity and democracy [were] two principles essentially irrelevant to the original Westphalian order. 350 years after [it] . . . where does the sovereignty of a state end and where does the international obligation to defend human rights and to avert a humanitarian disaster start?”
In an attempt to answer this question, and in the absence of either an obvious threat to international peace and security, or Security Council unanimity, politicians have struggled to construct a variety of justifications for intervention in the past. Some of these have been more coherent than others. Right now it looks as though an intervention in Syria will be justified on the grounds of either humanitarian intervention or the “moral obscenity” of what appears to be a violation of the prohibition on chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.