The Situation in Syria: What can we do about it?

credit: Associated Press


You will have seen the bold headings on the news, the graphic images and blurry videos of rows of dead bodies, missiles being fired at civilian buildings and people screaming and running.  The world knows that innnocent civilians are being targeted and executed, but what has been done so far, and what can you do about it?

The sich, the 411



To summarise the situation in a paragraph (or two):

The Syrian uprising is a violent internal conflict in Syria, triggered by the “Arab Spring” uprisings which has seen the overturning of the Egyptian government and protests across the Arab world.

The protesters want to overthrow the government, and they are demanding that the current President resigns and holds democratic elections. In response, the Syrian government deployed the Syrian army to quell the uprisings, resulting in several cities being besieged. Civilians and army defectors have formed fighting units in response to the Syrian Army’s attacks, and the Syrian Army has been accused of targeting and killing civilians.

To date, the UN estimates that up to 20,000 people have been killed, and many more have been imprisoned.

Why has nothing happened so far?

The United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn the Syrian government on the crackdown on its own civilians; however for the United Nations requires a Security Council resolution to pass to authorise any intervention in Syria.  Following the General Assembly resolution, the draft Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian government failed as it was vetoed by both China and Russia. Unsurprisingly, this has lead to renewed calls for the Security Council to be reformed as the vetoes were widely perceived to be Russia and China acting in self-interest.

Meanwhile, the deaths are mounting, the UN is getting lambasted for its inaction, and ordinary Syrians are dying while the world is wringing its hands wondering what the next move is.


UN Youth New Zealand’s role

Posting messages on our Facebook wall telling us to do stuff isn’t going to cut it – UN Youth New Zealand is a volunteer-run educational organisation. We aim to educate and empower young New Zealanders so that they are equipped to make a difference in the world. Military intervention doesn’t really fit well with our university schedules – sorry.

If by attending our Model UN events, young New Zealanders understand the mechanisms of the United Nations and how diplomatic/political tensions and differing ideologies of states can affect the operation of those mechanisms then that makes our work as educators worthwhile.

If by getting to know fellow UN Youth members and attending our events, young New Zealanders are inspired and empowered with a strong voice to speak up about these issues and know how they can play their part in making a difference, our work is done.

What can you do about it?

Upset? Angry? Wondering how such atrocities are happening in the 21st century? GOOD.

Wanting to do something about it? EVEN BETTER.

Here are some suggestions on what you can do to make a difference:


I don’t mean recapping the number of deaths like you see in the media today – that’s not news!  How many people do you think are aware of how this conflict began, why there has been no intervention to date?  Do they fully understand how horrific even the idea of a government turning on its civilians is?  They aren’t just deaths from a war somewhere far away – these are people being killed in their own homes for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Peaceful protesters being mowed down by the very army that is supposed to protect them. People being denied access to water, food, electricity and medical care because their own army has barricaded in the city they live in.   Disturbed and a little uncomfortable? I fecking hope so.


I encourage you all to sign the petitions on calling for the EU to impose severe economic and political sanctions on Syria and impose an arm embargo. The Syrian state can only continue its activities if they are able to source munitions and other supplies to continue its actions.

I would also encourage you to write to your local MP, to write to the New Zealand delegation at the United Nations to encourage and support them in their efforts.

New Zealand is also bidding for a position on the Security Council in the 2015-16 term.  While non-permanent positions on the SC do not have the power of veto, New Zealand has long been an advocate for reform of the Security Council.   The hope is that our term on the Security Council acts as a catalyst for Security Council reform, so we do not see a repeat of Syria, where the current political deadlock  has lead to the death toll continuing to rise needlessly.


I would also encourage you to support the protesters and civilians, by making a financial contribution towards their basic needs.  Perhaps you aren’t in a position to make a financial contribution – make a donation of your time and effort by telling others who are why you think it is important to support the civilians in Syria and encourage them to donate.

Are there any other ways that we can make a difference?  Comment below:

UN Security Council: the Year Ahead

Arab spring to Arab summer?

The heat is still on in the Arab world, as aftershocks from the 2011 Arab spring continue to rock the region. Of particular concern are the deepening crises in Syria and Yemen. The conflict in Syria seems to be deepening as forces opposed to the government gather steam. Syria is increasingly becoming a pariah state, especially as the Arab League states have become the strongest proponents for intervention. If the situation worsens, the current gridlock in the Security Council may come unstuck as Russia and China are forced to reassess their positions. Meanwhile, the downward spiral in Yemen looks almost unstoppable. In the midst of a population boom, a shattered economy, a severe lack of water resources and almost impossibly weak governance capacity, the country is fracturing. Tribal groups are jockeying for power, while old tensions between the North and South simmer and the ongoing threat of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula looms large. The Security Council will have little choice but to take some action in Yemen in 2012.

South Sudan

The fledgling one-year-old country of South Sudan still remains very much on the life-support of the international community. Two decades of civil war have left deep scars in the social fabric of the country as inter-communal conflicts are on the rise and the Lord’s Resistance Army continue to terrorise the West Equatoria region. Meanwhile, the largest outside threat to the survival South Sudan is the old foe, the Republic of Sudan. At the heart of continued diplomatic quarrels and border skirmishes between the two is the dispute over the oil-rich Abyei region, which was taken by force by the Republic of Sudan in mid-2011. The region has been long overdue for a referendum to decide its future, but the fate of the region now lies in the hands of the two countries, who are far from reaching agreement. This is likely to result in increased military action on both sides.

Horn of Africa

The devastating drought and famine in the Horn of Africa in 2011 is continuing into 2012, despite dropping off our airwaves. Whenever a humanitarian crisis of such massive proportions occurs, there are always flow-on security implications. Somalia has been a disaster-zone for more than two decades now, but the level of starvation and displacement of communities was higher last year than ever before. The Security Council is highly reluctant to intervene in Somalia, especially as the United States still licks its wounds after its withdrawal in 1993, but the current situation is causing a rethink. Also, the huge displacement of people from Somalia into refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia has destabilised areas of these countries, which are struggling with drought and famine themselves. This added stress could cause serious issues for Kenya as it heads to the polls in late-2012. This could see a repeat of the post-election violence in 2007, especially as underlying ethnic tension remains.

Other situations to keep an eye on

All eyes are on new North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as he seeks to secure his power base. North Korea may come on to the Security Council agenda if Kim Jong-un chooses to assert his dominance through displays of his country’s military might.

Further south, in the South China Sea, tension is brewing between several states who have territorial claims to islands in the sea. In particular, China, Vietnam and the Philippines have been increasing their naval presence in the area, which has caused serious diplomatic conflicts. We could see small scale naval conflicts in the sea in 2012, but these are unlikely to be discussed in the Security Council due to China’s veto power.

Nigeria is also looking increasingly unstable, with sectarian conflict in the north of the country escalating. Conflict between Christians and Muslims is not new to Nigeria, but the increasingly widespread terror attacks by Boko Haram could ignite the volatile country, which has failed to invest its oil wealth in addressing the dire living standards of the bulk of its 170 million strong population.

Tensions have been high in the Strait of Hormuz in January, as Iran threatens to obstruct cargo passing through the area in response to increased sanctions from the EU and US. The incident is part of a wider dispute between Iran and the bulk of the international community about Iran’s nuclear programme. Talks between the P5 members of the Security Council and Iran came to a stalemate early last year. Iran is unlikely to follow through with its threats, but the continued posturing on both sides is creating a mini-Cold War type situation between Iran and the West.

UN Security Council 2011: the rundown

2011 was an extraordinary year for the UN Security Council. While for most of this century, political gridlock has meant that the Council has been resigned to report writing and thumb twiddling, 2011 was different. An increasing appetite for multilateralism by the United States coupled with a softening of stances from Russia and China meant that the Council found itself taking a more central role in a range of conflicts in 2011. In particular, the actions taken by the Council in Cote D’Ivoire and Libya broke new ground by mandating intervention to protect civilians from government violence. However by the end of the year, the continued inaction regarding Syria has left us questioning whether the Council has gone back to square one.

Cote D’Ivoire

Cote D’Ivoire was plunged into civil war in early-2011 after incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo refused to give up power to the internationally-recognised election winner Alessane Ouattara. As violence broke out Gbagbo ordered the United Nations Operation in Cote D’Ivoire (UNOCI) to leave the country or be considered ‘rebels’. UNOCI refused to leave. By March, pro-Ouattara forces had taken control of most of the country and pro-Gbagbo forces were entrenched in the largest city, Abidjan. The UNSC issued Resolution 1975 which stated that UNOCI could use “all necessary measures” in its mandate to protect civilians under imminent threat of attack.

Using this resolution as a mandate, UNOCI became more and more active in the battle for Abidjan. UNOCI took control of parts of Abidjan, attacked pro-Gbagbo forces and, along with French forces, used helicopters to bombard pro-Gbagbo military installations.

The actions of UNOCI certainly assisted in defeating Gbagbo and prevented further civilian casualties. However the actions were not without criticism. Russia accused UNOCI of using excessive force and of overstepping their mandate. But Russia’s concerns about resolution 1975 would soon be overshadowed by its deep regret about resolution 1973.


At around the same time as event unfolded in Cote D’Ivoire, civil war also broke out in Libya. Initial protests in Benghazi spurred an opposition uprising across Libya. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s forces sought to violently repress the uprising, but the opposition rallied and united under the National Transitional Council. This led to an all out war between the two sides, placing the civilians of Libya in great danger.

In response, the Security Council passed resolution 1973, which imposed a no-fly zone over Libya and authorised all necessary means to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas. Using the resolution as a mandate, NATO forces soon began a massive military campaign which lasted for several months and eventually resulted in the victory of the National Transitional Council over Gaddafi.

Resolutions 1973 and 1975 showed a willingness of the Council to flirt with the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine (R2P) – the idea that sovereignty comes with a responsibility to protect civilians from mass atrocities and that if this is not fulfilled, the international community has a responsibility to assist or intervene in order to protect civilians.

However, this flirtation may only be brief. Russia and China were clearly unhappy with the high level of NATO involvement in Libya and when a similar situation arose in Syria, they were not interested in another trial.


Despite clear evidence of the Syrian government brutally subduing its opponents and causing massive harm to its own civilians, Russia has persistently blocked any attempts by the Security Council to take any serious action in Syria. UN estimates put the death toll at more than 5,400 people since March 2011, and the violence has shown no signs of abating.

However, Russia’s hesitation to allow Security Council action is not solely based on what happened in Cote D’Ivoire and Libya. Russia and Syria have done a number of arms deals in recent years, including the modernisation of the Syrian armed forces from 2008 which reportedly earned Russia around US$4 billion.

This situation shows that one rule in Security Council has not changed – where a P5 member has a direct interest in a situation, the Council will not take serious action unless it is in the interests of that member.

What remains unclear is what the attitude of the Council is to using R2P in situations where the P5 do not have a direct interest. Have Russia and China had enough of the idea altogether after Cote D’Ivoire and Libya, or are they be willing to  use the doctrine if a situation becomes serious enough?

Perhaps we will find out in 2012.