by Bill Pearce, President of WFM – Canada’s Victoria chapter
On April 12th 2017 Russia vetoed a proposed resolution of the Security Council (SC) which condemned the reported use of chemical weapons in Syria and required Syria to provide unfettered access to the Fact Finding Mission of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, in order that those responsible be held accountable.
Following the Security Council’s failure to act, the Trudeau government to its credit called for special meetings of the General Assembly to discuss the Syrian crisis. Following these two meetings, the Assembly passed a resolution calling for the establishment of an International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to assist in the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for serious crimes related to the chemical attacks and requiring it to work closely with the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, a body established by the UN Human Rights Council. The resolution wa adopted by the General Assembly on Dec 21, 2016.
The call to reform the UN Charter has been ongoing for decades. The unreasonable use of the veto power of the permanent five members of the Security Council (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and United States) has been at the center of the debate. Far too often the international rule of law has been weakened by the inability of the Security Council to restore peace to a troubled part of the world due to an obstructive veto of one or more of the permanent members. What is not so well understood is that there is a way for the UN to take action on peace and security issues when the SC is stalemated by veto or threatened veto. This pathway, which Canada invoked in the above-mentioned 2016 discussions concerning Syria, was first utilized in a 1950 General Assembly resolution and became known as the ‘Uniting for Peace’ Resolution.
It all started with the outbreak of hostilities on the Korean peninsula in early 1950. Faced with a threatened veto from the USSR, the General Assembly on November 3rd 1950 passed the ‘Uniting for Peace’ Resolution 377 authorizing a UN-created military force under US command to repel the invasion of South Korea.
Resolution 377 reads in part: “…if the Security Council, because of the lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails in its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace…the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately with a view to making appropriate recommendations to the members for collective measures…including the use of armed force when necessary…”
To facilitate prompt action by the General Assembly (GA) in the case of a deadlocked Security Council an Emergency Special Session (ESS) of the GA can be convened under Article 20 of the Charter by the Secretary General at the request of the SC or by the vote of the majority of the members of the United Nations. ESS’s have been convened on 12 occasions by the GA.
Another example is the 1956 resolution mandating the UN Emergency force for the Suez Canal. It is to be remembered that Prime Minister Lester Pearson won a Nobel prize for initiating the resolution for a UN peacekeeping force under Canadian leadership to “secure and supervise” the cessation of hostilities following the British and French-supported attack on Egypt by Israel.
Other GA interventions include 1956 resolutions calling for the withdrawal of Soviet military forces from Hungary, a 1960 resolution confirming the mandate of the UN Operation in the Congo, a 1980 resolution calling for the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, and a 1981 resolution calling upon members to render military assistance to the South West African People’s Organization in its struggle for the liberation of Namibia.
Any doubt with respect to the authority of the General Assembly to address matters of peace and security was removed when the ICJ in its 1962 Advisory Opinion to the UN considered the wording of Article 24(1) of the Charter which provides that the Security Council has the “primary” responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security and ruled that such responsibility was “not exclusive” and that “the Charter made it abundantly clear that the General Assembly was also to be concerned with international peace and security.”
At the 2005 World Summit all the members endorsed the Responsibility to Protect, a commitment of each state to protect its population from ethnic cleansing, genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, with the responsibility of the international community to take collective action to protect such populations through the Security Council in a “timely and decisive manner” should national authorities fail in their duty.
The most recent egregious example of the Security Council’s failure to act is in Myanmar. The UN has reported that over 600,000 Rohingya refugees have fled from Rakhine province as a result of ethnic cleansing by the government of Myanmar. The paralysis at the Security Council is due primarily to the reluctance of Russia and China to authorize intervention when a sovereign state targets its own people.
Canada has an international obligation along with other member states to initiate a resolution in the General Assembly to aid the Rohingya. Effective measures could include the imposition of targeted sanctions with a view to pressuring Myanmar to stop the ethnic cleansing and to consent to the presence of a GA-sanctioned international force on their soil to ensure that the Rohingya have the necessary protection for their safe return.
By taking a page from the playbook of Lester Pearson to take the lead in this crisis, Canada has a perfect opportunity to reinvigorate the UN and help restore faith in this worthy institution, which is sorely lacking at the moment.