In final address Navi Pillay says a more responsive UN Security Council could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
United Nations – As it celebrates its 70th birthday, the United Nations is really starting to show its age.
The UN was formed after World War II in an effort to stop future conflicts. Nowadays, it looks outpaced by all-out wars and volatile front-lines from South Sudan to Ukraine and the Central African Republic.
But it is anger over the war in Syria – with its 250,000 fatalities and 11 million refugees – that has provoked the most criticism of the UN and questions over whether its top body, the Security Council, is fit for purpose.
Reformers point to the all-powerful vetoes wielded by the UN Security Council’s five permanent members – Russia, China, Britain, France and the United States.
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“Syrians are paying with their lives for the council’s inability to agree on how to end mass atrocities there,” Simon Adams, director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, a think-tank, told Al Jazeera.
“Nobody disagrees they occur, including those who veto resolutions and directly exacerbate this war by signalling that perpetrators will not be held accountable.”
This week, efforts to reform the council are gathering momentum with increased focus on getting the 15-nation body to act decisively when tyrants or militiamen butcher large numbers of civilians.
On Monday, French President Francois Hollande promised France would not use its veto during mass atrocities.
“How can the UN remain paralysed when the worst is unfolding in front of our eyes?” he told the UN General Assembly.
Britain holds a similar position but, in practice, neither London nor Paris has vetoed anything since 1989.
Vetoes are mostly cast by Russia and China, which have double-vetoed four resolutions on Syria, and the US, which often uses them to shield Israel. The “silent veto” – an early warning of a no vote from behind closed doors – stops many draft resolutions in their tracks.
These three veto-casting powers are unlikely to give up the unique diplomatic weapon.
Russian President Vladimir Putin defended that right this week. The veto is part of a UN structure that makes unequalled superpowers, such as the US, bound by the same rules as everybody else, he said.
The UN’s “founders did not in the least think that there would always be unanimity”, he said.
Richard Bennett, who runs the UN office for Amnesty International, admitted there is a stumbling block. “We’re not naive enough to think that Security Council rules will be changed any time soon,” Bennett told Al Jazeera.
Instead, reformers take a different approach. Rather than rewrite UN rules, they seek to persuade members not to vote against draft resolutions that tackle civilian bombings, gas attacks, and other atrocities.
“It’s moral-suasion,” said Adams. “The bright glare of public scrutiny is making states account for their votes on mass atrocity crimes. If they have to justify themselves more in the court of world opinion, that’s a victory in itself.”
On Wednesday, France and Mexico will host a meeting to encourage the council’s other permanent members to follow Hollande’s lead by pledging not to use their veto when mass atrocities take place.
On Thursday, some 50 UN members – called the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency Group – will release a voluntary code of conduct for council members, which includes not voting against resolutions on mass killings.
The policy of “veto restraint” is gaining traction, even if it will not win fans in Moscow, Washington, or Beijing. In recent weeks, such varied countries as Singapore, Turkey, Qatar, Japan, Bolivia, and Ukraine have signed up.
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Against this backdrop, analysts have started looking back to October 2011 – when the first draft resolution on Syria was nixed – to ask whether the war would have played out differently if Russia and China had not voted against it.
“Without vetoes, we could have seen an arms embargo, sanctions on key Syrian decision-makers – maybe referrals to the International Criminal Court,” Stefan Barriga, a UN diplomat from Liechtenstein, told Al Jazeera.
“The conflict is highly complex and we cannot conclude that these actions would have ended the war, but I think they would have had an impact.”
For William Pace, from the 1 for 7 Billion campaign for UN reform, vetoes have encouraged council members to split into two camps – often with Western allies on one side and Russia and China on the other.
As Syria’s anti-government protests descended into carnage, the West called for “out-and-out regime change” and the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – a long-term strategic ally who Moscow did not want to lose, Pace said.
“Here, the veto was a polarising factor that encouraged the great powers to politically shame each other rather than make the compromises necessary for achieving peace,” he told Al Jazeera.
From that point on, there was no room for compromise.
“Russia and China basically walked away from the table, offering no alternatives. Almost everyone else gave up, or started arming one rebel group or another,” said Adams.
“Whether we like it or not, the UN Security Council is the only body we have for global peace and security – and it needs to do better than this.”
Of course, not everyone agrees that the UN council could have done any better. Some analysts point to the five resolutions on which the council did agree.
Since April 2012, members have deployed unarmed observers to Syria, worked to remove chemical weapons, and boosted access to aid.
The line between a draft resolution passing and being vetoed, in essence, reflects diverging views among some of the world’s most powerful countries, said Jonathan Cristol, a scholar at the World Policy Institute think-tank.
“The Security Council merely reflects the global balance of power,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Removing the veto in a real-world situation, such as Syria, will not change underlying realities: Russia would still back Assad, including militarily, and the US and its allies would still not have the stomach to decisively alter the course of the civil war.”
Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl