Russia’s and China’s vetoes of a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the deadly state-sponsored violence in Syria disappointed the Obama administration, but were not a complete surprise.
But the abstentions cast by three of the council’s rotating members in the vote Tuesday evening – Brazil, India, and South Africa – raised a lot of eyebrows and are likely to have deep and long-lasting repercussions for the workings of the international community.
That’s because the three are aspirants for permanent seats in an envisioned Security Council expansion. As a result, world powers like the US that will ultimately decide who joins the world’s most exclusive – and arguably most powerful – international peace and security club are taking careful note of aspirants’ actions for clues as to how they might use enlarged international powers.
The Syria resolution achieved the minimum nine favorable votes, but was doomed by the rare Russia-China double veto. Lebanon also abstained.
Russia and China may have viewed the abstentions favorably for future reference, but for Western powers and their supporters who increasingly view advancing of a set of universal human rights as a key part of the council’s job, the three rising powers’ vote was troubling.
“By abstaining, [Brazil, India, and South Africa] have not only failed the Syrian people, but [have] also failed to offer a credible alternative to end the bloodshed,” says Philippe Bolopion, UN director of Human Rights Watch in New York. “This vote erodes their credibility in the global arena and might come to define their tenure in the Security Council and undermine their claim to permanent membership.”
Expansion of the 15-member Security Council has been discussed for years, with proponents of reform arguing that a council make-up that reflects the post-World War II map no longer serves the 21st-century world of emerging powers. The five veto-wielding permanent members include France and Great Britain, but no Asian member other than China and no country from the Southern Hemisphere.
Even before Tuesday’s vote, the Obama administration was making it clear that it was not impressed with what it was seeing from the three council aspirants known as the “IBSA” countries (India, Brazil, South Africa).
At a Monitor breakfast with Washington reporters last month, the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, said that the US had been especially watchful of the international actions of council members who aspire to permanent council seats – and she then offered a downbeat assessment.
“It’s been a very interesting opportunity to see how they respond to the issues of the day, how they relate to us and others, how they do or don’t act consistent with their own democratic institutions and stated values,” she said. “Let me just say we’ve learned a lot and, frankly, not all of it encouraging.”
Ambassador Rice cited specific issues – Libya, Sudan, Cote d’Ivoire – where the US had been watching the council aspirants and said they had taken positions “that one might not have anticipated, given that each of them come out of strong and proud democratic traditions.”
In that context Rice’s unspoken list of council aspirants probably included Germany, which also holds a rotating council seat and which abstained in the March council vote that authorized enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya.
No doubt the US will now add Syria to that list of test cases the IBSA countries have failed. (Germany voted for the Syria resolution).
IBSA diplomats and some diplomatic analysts say the abstainers are not voting “no” to democracy or in favor of repression, but are instead acting in favor of another traditional principle: non-intervention of outside powers in countries’ internal battles.
Several representatives of the abstaining countries said after Tuesday’s vote that they did not want a repeat of the Libya scenario where, in their view, Western powers used Security Council resolutions to intervene on behalf of rebel fighters.
In her comments on Tuesday’s vote, Rice called such an argument a “cheap ruse” from countries more interested in maintaining lucrative arms sales with the Syrian regime than with supporting the Syrian people.
The IBSA abstentions may have been “principled” from the perspective of those countries, but they are not likely to move them any faster from the long list of Security Council rotating members to the rarefied world of the permanent few.