The United Nations estimates that since the Syrian uprising began a year ago, more than 9,000 Syrians have been killed. A recent assessment by Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Elliot Abrams puts the total number of Syrian refugees at almost a half-million. Worse, it appears that Syrian president Bashar Assad’s forces are continuing to torture, imprison and kill Syrian civilians. It also seems that the recent peace plan promulgated by U.N.-Arab League peace envoy Kofi Annan, which Mr. Assad’s government agreed to, is dead. According to Turkey’s prime minister, “He [Assad] is not withdrawing troops, but he is duping the international community.”
The conventional wisdom purports that the international community is out of alternatives short of another potentially dangerous military intervention or the risky prospect of arming Syria’s rebels. Syria’s government has already thumbed its nose at sanctions and condemnations from the Arab League, Gulf Cooperation Council and the European Union as well as various U.N. organs and individual countries. The Security Council, thanks to the vetoes of Russia and China, is also constrained to issuing awkward joint statements rather than passing binding resolutions.
But there is another option that has received surprisingly little attention.
Specifically, the United States as well as like-minded delegations in the West and Middle East should consider calling for Syria’s suspension from the U.N.’s most democratic and representative organ, the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA), where all 193 U.N. member states can vote. Such an act would entail zero material costs, avoid veto authority and would be a critical step toward alleviating the humanitarian nightmare unfolding in Syria.
In particular, Syria’s suspension would act to further isolate its leadership, increase the probability of high-level Syrian defections both at the U.N. and elsewhere, and would likely bolster the confidence of the country’s beleaguered internal opposition forces. Most importantly, Syria’s suspension would unambiguously symbolize the international community’s collective disgust with the actions of Syria’s ruling government, while providing a new form of leverage to compel Syria’s government to change course.
Citing apartheid, a majority of the nine-member U.N. Credentials Committee – which confirms the credentials of U.N. delegations – and a supermajority of the UNGA, voted to suspend South Africa’s participation in the latter body in 1974. It also just so happens that a majority of the current U.N. Credentials Committee already voted to condemn “widespread and systematic” human rights abuses in Syria, along with a two-thirds majority of other U.N. member states, during a UNGA vote in February.
Still, detractors could argue that there are lots of rights violators sitting pretty in the UNGA and that suspending Syria will open the floodgates for more suspension proposals, ultimately creating chaos at Turtle Bay. While it is true there are human rights violators who can speak and vote within the UNGA on a daily basis (i.e., North Korea), none have faced the cornucopia of warnings, sanctions, olive branches, second chances, third chances and regional and global condemnation that Syria has. All of this would ensure that suspending Syria is perceived as a one-off, emergency measure rather than a precedent to transform the UNGA into a “Survivor” episode.
Critics may also worry that suspending Syria will lead to politically driven suspension campaigns targeting U.S. allies, namely Israel. This, though, ignores the fact that several attempts to suspend Israel occurred in the 1980s and none succeeded. Moreover, the same political muscle the United States and other delegations could employ to suspend Syria is fungible and could be easily recalibrated to protect U.S. allies.
Finally, opponents of pursuing suspension could counter that the U.N. Charter requires a positive corresponding vote of the U.N. Security Council, which is a nonstarter. While Article 6 of the U.N. Charter indeed reads, “A Member of the United Nations which has persistently violated the Principles contained in the present Charter may be expelled from the Organization by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council,” the Security Council never actually voted to approve South Africa’s suspension in 1974. Regardless, South Africa’s delegation was effectively excluded from the UNGA until apartheid’s demise in 1994.
Additionally, in February 2011, Libya’s deputy U.N. ambassador in New York, Ibrahim Dabbashi, was somehow able to request an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council – a right reserved for U.N. member state delegations – on the same day he announced that he would represent the Libyan people rather than Moammar Gadhafi. Both cases suggest that under exceptional circumstances, there may be more maneuverability in this area than usually acknowledged.
Suspending Syria’s participation in the UNGA is hardly a panacea to the current crisis, but nonetheless represents a pragmatic middle ground between more extreme alternatives and maintaining the status quo.
Ryan Kaminski is a research associate within the Council on Foreign Relations’ International Institutions and Global Governance program.