“Does it stay on all the time or does it come off?” Ahmed asked from his hospital bed, frowning at the thought of a prosthetic leg. “I want one that doesn’t come off.” These are the words of a 12-year-old boy, an innocent victim of a brutal regime and an international system that has in too many ways failed the people of Syria.
My own 13-year-old, reading these words in the newspaper, asks whether there is something that can be done to help. I begin my usual “It’s complicated” — there are legal constraints, there is the lack of political will — but seeing the look in my son’s eyes, I say instead, “Yes there is.”
The U.N. Security Council, and its permanent members in particular, could take bolder action, working in good faith toward delivering on the promise of the U.N. Charter: “To save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, [and] in the dignity and worth of the human person.”
In September, Russian President Vladimir Putin admonished the United States for seeing itself as “exceptional” in its desire to take action against the chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians in Syria. But the U.S. is exceptional, as are Russia, China, Britain and France. Each holds a permanent seat on the 15-member Security Council, which means each has the power to veto (or not) any decisions made by the only U.N. body with the authority to “maintain or restore” international peace and security. Yet with this exceptional power comes exceptional responsibility.
Rather than wrangling over whether or not to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid, Russia and the other members should work to ensure that children like Ahmed have access to basic food and medical care. The good news is that with the support of Russia, the Security Council recently adopted a resolution on the safe passage of humanitarian aid to Syria. However, the real test will come in 30 days when the U.N. reports on whether such aid has gotten through. Russia’s refusal to allow sanctions language to be included in the aid resolution makes enforcement all that much more difficult.
The next step is for the Security Council to refer the plight of Ahmed and other Syrian civilians to the International Criminal Court for investigation into the commission of crimes against humanity and war crimes. Some will ask, “What good will that do?” But consider what happened in Darfur after the Security Council referred that crisis to the ICC. Although many individuals have yet to answer for their international crimes, the fact that a peace agreement was signed within a year of that referral was no coincidence. So, too, a referral of the situation in Syria could perhaps aid the stalled peace negotiations in Geneva.
However, Russia does not stand alone in its responsibility and Syria is not the only matter that requires Security Council action. A U.N. commission of inquiry recently reported on gross violations of human rights in North Korea and recommended that the Security Council refer that matter to the ICC as well. The answer to this call, according to many, lies with China, which should join the rest of the council to protect human beings who are facing immeasurable suffering under a brutal regime. The U.S. is not without its own history of neglect on the Security Council, as the U.N.’s documented failures in the face of genocide in Rwanda aptly demonstrate.
Without bold and decisive action, the Security Council risks becoming irrelevant. In 2003, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, speaking of the potential proliferation of unilateral action in the face of collective inaction, noted that “we must not shy away from questions about the adequacy, and effectiveness, of the rules and instruments at our disposal. Among those instruments, none is more important than the Security Council itself.”
The familiar rejoinder is that it is not the role of the Security Council to get involved with the internal matters of a country. Tell that to the 2 million-plus refugees who have fled Syria in an attempt to escape barrel bombs, chemical attacks and other indiscriminate methods of killing with weapons that are being supplied to the Bashar Assad regime by various forces, including countries outside Syria. It is more than disheartening to think that the only response could be to better arm the rebels. The responsibility of the Security Council is not to escalate war but to find a means to restore peace and security.
Syria and the other conflicts that the U.N. must address are indeed complicated. Each country involved has its own national interests and its own narrative to advance. Yet national interests should not result in tacit approval of or apathy toward the brutal targeting and maiming of innocent civilians. This is especially true when there are legitimate means of responding short of force, such as a Security Council referral to the ICC.
The members of the Security Council, and especially the five permanent members, have an obligation to use their power as it was intended: for the sake of a 12-year-old amputee, and for so many others, that they might live in peace, security and dignity.
Lorie Graham is a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and co-director of the International Law Concentration at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.