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South Africa and Syria at the UN
Simon Adams, Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect
18 October 2011
Two weeks ago Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution on Syria. South Africa abstained from the vote. The resulting sound bites and political posturing made outstanding diplomatic theatre. But the real cost of the veto will be paid in Syrian lives. (…)
The ostensible justification was that Russia and China were nervous that UN-authorized coercive measures (including sanctions) might eventually lead to Syria becoming “the next Libya.” The veto was, therefore, also a challenge to the UN notion of the international community’s “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) all people from war crimes, ethnic cleansing, genocide and crimes against humanity.
The ugly truth is that Russia would have vetoed Tuesday night’s resolution even if the Libyan intervention had never happened and R2P didn’t exist. (…)
One cannot help but think that Russia’s real objection to the proposed UN resolution was the possibility of an arms embargo. It is, after all, largely Russian guns, tanks and artillery that are doing the killing in Syria. In the absence of a UN embargo or sanctions, Russia is conveniently “obliged” to honour existing contracts with its closest Arab ally. (…)
But China also has considerable interest in the survival of the al-Assad regime, being the country’s second largest non-Arab investor. Trade is mostly a one-way affair, with massive amounts of cheap Chinese goods flooding the Syrian market. China has invested heavily in the renewal of Syria’s aging energy infrastructure and also assisted with missile technology. Russia’s lobbying emboldened the Chinese to veto as well.
Global action to stop crimes against humanity should not be held prisoner to dubious interests and convenient alliances. Since the Responsibility to Protect was unanimously endorsed (including by South Africa, China, Russia and Syria) at the 2005 UN World Summit, there has been an evolving consensus that no permanent Security Council member should use its veto in a case where mass atrocity crimes are being perpetrated. But abstaining in such a case is only slightly less distasteful. (…)
The long suffering people of Syria deserve better than this. In preventing the United Nations from upholding its Responsibility to Protect, China and Russia have placed themselves on the wrong side of history. The veto was a victory for impunity, inaction and injustice. But whither South Africa?
As South Africa and its fellow IBSA “abstainers” - India and Brazil - meet in Pretoria this week the uncomfortable question of what role South Africa wants to play on the Security Council remains unanswered.
Perhaps it is time to return to the words of Madiba: “To be free is not only to cast off one's chains but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." As relevant to Syria today, as it was to the people of South Africa when he said it.
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