15 July 2019

The Limitations and Capabilities of the United Nations in Modern Conflict


Following the Second World War, the international community was reinvigorated to design an international body with the capability to limit the onset of another world war. Enshrined in the United Nations (UN) Charter was the vision for the organization to be “a guardian of international peace and security, as a promoter of human rights, as a protector of international law, and as an engineer of socioeconomic advancement”.[1] The intergovernmental organization has risen as an essential platform for the promotion of global governance in which states “can elaborate and extend international law in areas such as human rights, international trade, the sea, and the fight against terrorism”.[2] Mindful of the failures of its predecessor, the League of Nations, the founders of the redesigned body established the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and awarded it “almost limitless power when it came to dealing with violations of peace”.[3] Vested with the authority to enact international sanctions and authorize military action through UNSC resolutions, the principal organ of the UN has become an essential enabler in advancing the UN’s primary objectives. While geopolitics have shifted significantly since the creation of the UN, its original structure and the necessity of the body as a vital mechanism of diplomacy remains unchanged. Evidently, transitions in power dynamics have ultimately impacted the way in which war is fought, with civil unrest and internalized strife growing increasingly common in the twenty-first century. Given increases in regionalized conflict, the primary threat to the United Nation’s intended goal of universal peace and security is “the denial of human security to the citizens in one or more states as a result of civil conflict and strife”.[4] As the international community attempts to address the growth in unrest, the question remains: “who responds when basic rights are threatened and citizens are subjected to further privations in their daily lives”?[5] Is the UN and its principle organs capable of responding to and mitigating modern, multi-faceted conflict? This paper will examine the extent to which the present structure of the UNSC and tenets of international law can enable intervention and mediation when responding to civil unrest and internal conflict.

The UN and its contemporary challenges

In an era of interconnectedness and with the rising need for international regulation, the UNSC was established to facilitate efforts in determining threats to the maintenance of peace in the global realm. The UNSC is vested with the authority to impose “sanctions or even authorize the use of force”, making it the most powerful entity of the United Nations.[6] The Council’s five permanent members (P-5) – the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China – and ten elected, rotating members “meet regularly to assess threats to international security, addressing issues that include civil wars, natural disasters, arms control and terrorism”.[7]

A plethora of contemporary challenges have exposed the UN to criticism in its ability to evolve with changes in geopolitics, most notably the organization’s responsive rather than reactive approach to confronting international crises and the rise in nations disinterested in international consensus building. “The protection of civilians, the threat of violent extremism… and the dilemmas of state building” have presented obstacles that have forced both the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and the UNSC to reevaluate their ability to comprehensively address today’s global challenges.[8]However, the primary obstacle threatening the capacity of the UN remains “how to deal with conflicts – be they between or within states – without offending the national sovereignty of its member states”.[9] Additionally, the UNSC remains controversial for its lack of global representation amongst the P-5 members with the ability to veto vital resolutions brought before the body. Given that the organization “remains largely unchanged since its founding in 1946”, debate regarding “its efficacy and authority as a mediator on matters of international security” is ongoing and increasingly prevalent in light of presently deteriorating modern conflicts.[10] With the determination of the P-5 having been structured in the aftermath of World War II, critics note that the current authority of the body disproportionately favors the positions of the permanent members, thus hindering the UNSC’s ability to distance itself from the sovereign interests of states when attempting to combat international security risks. Respective geopolitical aims of hegemons are evident in the present stalemate in the UNSC between Russia and the United States, with the veto power granted to permanent members constraining “the Council from engaging in the resolution of civil wars within their borders and in areas of perceived vital interest”.[11] Evidently, there is a disconnect between present threats to international security and the capacity for entities such as the UNSC to effectively mediate and mitigate conflict. The archaic structure of the UN and its entities makes it unable to address transitions in conflict that have complicated the need for resolution vis-à-vis mediation between nation states.

Changes in conflict have led to increased calls for reforms to the present structure of intergovernmental organizations as they attempt to intervene in mitigating civil unrest. Major changes in modern warfare and increased state engagement in proxy strategies have impacted the capacity for UN intervention. Given that “four out of five wars in the first half of the twentieth century were fought between states, the expectation was clearly that the Security Council’s primary task would be the prevention and resolution of interstate wars”.[12] However, increases in proxy wars “in which a third party intervenes indirectly in order to influence the strategic outcome in favor of its preferred faction” has complicated war and prolonged the mediation process.[13]While interventionism is not a new strategic method of hegemons, the manipulation of civil unrest has been used “as a means for securing particular conflict outcomes” in areas where “the augmentation of national interests or ideological gains can still be achieved”.[14] With many of the states engaged indirectly or directly in proxy wars being permanent members of the Security Council, the UNSC’s ability to intervene in such multi-faceted conflicts is all the more unlikely. It is apparent that the conventional conflicts between developed countries the UN was intended to prevent has diminished “as a result of the changing nature of the system of statehood and the international order in the mid-to-late twentieth century”.[15]

In the past decade, civil unrest has grown increasingly prevalent throughout the world and has subsequently challenged the international community in pressuring non-state and state actors to comply by the demands of the Security Council.[16] Since 1945, there has been “a remarkable reduction in the number of wars between states to settle a clash of interests or to enlarge territory” due to aforementioned transitions in conflict.[17] As a result of the decrease in conventional war and rise in civil unrest, the international community has struggled to hold non-state actors and autocrats accountable for violating standards established in customary international law. The present challenges have shifted the aim of UNSC resolutions, with “demands to civil war parties [becoming] more numerous and increasingly oriented toward post-conflict peace building between 1989 and 2006”.[18] However, the likelihood of such declarations enabling significant changes in the behavior of authoritarian regimes and actors not privy to the regulations of international law pose a detrimental threat to the UN’s ability to mediate and mitigate modern conflict.

With an extraordinary depletion in conventional war following 1945, non-state actors have enabled a transition in which “deadly conflict is much less likely than in the past to involve states waging war against each other”.[19] The lack of international mechanisms with the jurisdiction and capacity to hold non-state actors accountable has limited the UN’s success in intervening in civil unrest. With “unprecedented growth in the number of international actors and dramatic changes in the scope of international connectivity”, multi-faceted proxy wars have further complicated the ability for one-dimensional mediation strategies to appropriately and effectively resolve modern conflicts.[20] Consequently, the international community has been faced with the dilemma of addressing the legality of intervening in internalized conflict, with national sovereignty being “weighed and balanced against individual sovereignty, as recognized in the international human rights instruments”.[21] As this paper will later address, nations have established norms that would legalize the ability for external countries to intervene in some civil wars deemed to be a threat to international security and peace. The fundamental challenge lies in regulating the conduct of non-state actors and holding them accountable for violating international law. “Between 1989 and 2006, the Council issue[d] resolutions containing 1,988 specific demands to warring factions”, calling for their increased adherence to the customary norms of behavior.[22] With transitions in modern conflict, an increase in civil wars, and a rise in non-state actors, it is evident that the United Nations and its principle organs face prevalent obstacles in mediating the international security risks posed by modern conflict.

The Syrian gridlock

Following the initial 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, Syria emerged at the center of what has now deteriorated into nearly a decade of complex civil unrest that has challenged the international community and its ability to intervene in the war. As a nation plagued with multi-faceted proxy wars and incessant violations of international human rights norms, Syria and international actors involved in the conflict have struggled to reach a consensus on how to conclude to the ongoing bloodshed. As more than four competing networks vie to achieve their respective geopolitical objectives in the country, the fundamental humanitarian necessity of protecting civilian lives from heinous atrocities has become diluted as a result of the struggles presented by the ever-intensifying war. Two primary proxy conflicts have further compounded the complexity of the Syrian Civil War. The involvement of external states in the conflict has led to a religious proxy war between Shiite-backed troops of President Bashar al-Assad and the predominantly Sunni Gulf states. Additionally, “antigovernment rebel groups backed by the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others in the region” have been involved in combatting the ongoing regional threat of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (Daesh), a jihadist militant group whose terror has stretched far beyond Syria’s borders and has further compounded the duration of the ongoing civil war.[23]Terrorism coordinated or inspired by Daesh has led to increased military involvement by Western nations that deem the deteriorating situation in Syria to be a threat to their national security. Furthermore, terrorism has significantly contributed to not only compounding the complexity of the overall conflict, but has also limited the extent to which the United Nations and the Security Council can facilitate a ceasefire and an ultimate peace agreement in the war. Eight years of brutal war has resulted in over “half a million Syrians [being] killed, most by pro-regime forces, and more than half of the country’s prewar population of some twenty-two million [being] displaced”.[24]Evidently, the full engagement of the international community is vital if a conclusion to the conflict is to be reached.

With the Secretary General of the United Nations António Guterres calling the Syrian Civil War “the most serious threat to international peace and security” today, it is apparent that the conflict presents detrimental consequences for the global community.[25] As aforementioned, proxy wars “involving several national armies, a number of armed opposition groups, many national and international militia, foreign fighters from everywhere in the world, and various terrorist organizations” have led to failed attempts to reach a peace agreement in Syria.[26] With reliance on the UNSC as a platform for the maintenance of international security, it is evident that the present gridlock amongst the P-5 members is the fundamental cause for a lack of action by the body.

While international respect for the UNSC carries significant weight when resolutions are agreed upon in response to international security threats, recent “heightened tensions between the United States and Russia have manifested anew in the Council, leading to concerns that the body may be less able to defuse crises”.[27] In what has been seen as a new iteration of the Cold War, both Russian and American agendas in Syria have been scrutinized as shear promotions of self-interest.[28] The adversaries’ inability to effectively cooperate with one another has led to a stalemate in the international community’s ability to utilize the UNSC as an effective platform for responding to the crisis. Similarly to the Cold War of the 20th Century, “positive diplomatic engagement between Russia and the US has been reduced to communication and coordination to avoid direct military confrontation”.[29] The lack of diplomatic relations between the two powerful hegemons furthers the reality that a military solution is potentially a more likely solution in Syria than the use of non-violent political channels. While attempts have been made to address the deteriorating crisis, “Geneva peace talks on Syria – a UN-backed conference for facilitating a political transition led by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura – have thus far not been successful in coming up with a political solution”, as factions in the conflict disagree over who should be responsible for governing Syria in the aftermath of the war.[30] It is evident that the intervention of global powers in the country’s internal conflict has furthered the duration and destruction caused by the Syrian Civil War.

The UNSC has consequently been hindered in its ability to pass resolutions that decisively favor a side of the conflict given ongoing divisions between Russia and the United States. Draft resolutions produced by the body illustrate Russia’s strong commitment to limiting international intervention in Syria, as seen in UNSC Resolution 2165, which reaffirms the Council’s “strong commitment to the sovereignty… of Syria”.[31] While state sovereignty is a fundamental component of the United Nations Charter, its strict adherence places limitations on the UNSC’s ability to respond to potential atrocities committed by the Assad regime. While Russia and China have expressed their “growing discomfort with UN involvement in the internal struggles of Arab countries”, the sheer magnitude of the conflict and dire humanitarian crisis has furthered state interest in aiding resolution efforts.[32]

Growing resentment towards the current regime of Bashar al-Assad, accused of overseeing “a campaign of carnage, turning an enormous cache of deadly weapons against the very people they were presumably stockpiled to protect”, has furthered calls from the United States and its allies for regime change in the country.[33] While the Syrian Archive has documented roughly 212 likely chemical weapons attacks during the war, “the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Fact-Finding Mission has only been able to confirm sixteen cases as of June 2018”.[34] The severity of the aforementioned human rights abuses and the Assad regime’s apparent use of chemical weapons is in direct violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which Syria is a party of. The CWC “has put in place a comprehensive prohibition on chemical weapons development, production and deployment, and mandates the destruction of legacy chemical weapons”.[35] Such clear violations of international law by the Assad regime have been used as justification for the international community’s military involvement in the conflict, since the Syrian government has been found to have violated jus in bello norms – laws governing the conduct of armed conflicts.[36] Debate in the UNSC has centered on the legality for countries to intervene militarily in Syria, with Western allies declaring justification in using force without a clear mandate following the April 7, 2018 suspected chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of Douma.[37] However, unified support for intervention by the UNSC has been strategically and consistently blocked by both Russia and China.

While the Security Council has attempted to unanimously condemn the use of chemical weapons in Syria and to strategize ways to hold the Assad regime accountable for its ongoing human rights abuses, actions have been ineffective and have resulted in gridlock in the body. Russia, as of now, has vetoed ten resolutions pertaining to Syria in furtherance of its support for the Assad regime.[38] Both China and Russia have also vetoed resolutions “which would have sanctioned entities involved in the production of chemical weapons” used in Syria.[39] Additionally, the most recent veto by Russia “prevented the adoption of a US-drafted resolution to investigate chemical weapons use in Syria” which was “aimed at identifying the perpetrators” of the attacks.[40] As it pertains to the UNSC’s ability to comprehensively and unanimously respond to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons, it is apparent that action is unable to be taken in the Council. The China-Russia bloc has effectively hindered any firm measures taken to condemn the Assad regime and has most likely solidified Assad’s continued rule following a conflict resolution. With the international community now hoping to hold the regime accountable for human rights violations in a court of law, China and Russia have continued to reject any UNSC originated resolutions that would refer “belligerents in the Syrian Civil War, including the individuals in the Bashar al-Assad regime, to the International Criminal Court (ICC)”.[41] Therefore, if Assad remains in power following the conclusion of the war, there is a strong likelihood that Russia and China could hinder the ability for the UNSC to bring charges against members of the regime. Such deadlock has ultimately rendered the body ineffective in preventing the continued use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria and further contributes to criticisms of the UNSC’s ability to mitigate modern conflict. Russia’s relationship with the Assad regime, as well as increased hostilities with the United States, have paralyzed the UNSC and have made the prospect of agreement over Syria all the more unlikely.

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