Denis Fitzgerald is a freelance journalist covering the United Nations in New York. He blogs at UN Tribune.
For the first two weeks of Australia’s presidency, the UN Security Council has not met formally to discuss the situation in Syria (though there’s been plenty of informal discussion behind closed doors). That looks set to change this week with the release of the report by the UN chemical weapons inspectors.
The beginning of the presidency coincided with the G20 meeting in St Petersburg, and Ambassador Quinlan noted in his briefing on the Council’s program of work on 4 September that the heavy diplomacy was taking place there. Since then we have seen agreement on a Russian proposal, prompted by remarks by US Secretary of State John Kerry, to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, thus delaying and perhaps outright preventing a threatened US strike on Syria.
Quinlan also said in his opening press conference that the deadlock between the permanent five Council members remained and that Australia was one of a number of countries urging the big powers to break the stalemate, indicative of the carefully measured approach he has taken when discussing the fractious split in the Council.
There was a brief flurry of activity on 10 September with Britain, France and US planning to table a Chapter 7 resolution to enforce Syria’s acceptance of the plan to place its chemical stockpiles under international control. Russia immediately called for an emergency Council meeting to counter the P3 resolution and instead proposing a non-binding statement welcoming Syria’s acceptance of the deal. Quinlan took to his Twitter account later that day to announce that Russia had withdrawn its request for the meeting.
There will be plenty more maneuvering among the P5 in the week (and likely weeks) ahead as the Council grapples with how to respond to the inspectors' report as well as configuring a mechanism to enforce Syria’s compliance with the deal to put its chemical weapons beyond use.
For his part, Quinlan is staying above the fray, maintaining his impartiality in his capacity as Council president, telling reporters on Tuesday that the P5 were discussing their competing texts 'to see if it’s possible to bring their different perspectives on this together, and that’s where we’re at.' He added, however, that, 'We want to see something. We want to see an outcome, we want to see action', referring not just to Australia but to the other non-permanent members of the Council.
There’s little doubt that Australia would align itself with a Western-drafted resolution. It was among the 37 countries that signed onto a statement following the 21 August attacks near Damascus calling on Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to commence an investigation. It was also among the 57 countries that called in January for the Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. This letter was not signed by the US, which is not a member of the court.
Moreover, Australia has long fought against the proliferation of chemical weapons. It was one of the first countries to introduce export controls on chemicals that could be used to manufacture weapons. That was following revelations that Iraq had used chemical weapons in the early 1980s in its war against Iran. Concerned that there was no universal uniform controls on the export of dual-use chemicals, Australia called for a meeting of countries that had export controls 'with the aim of harmonising their national licensing measures and enhancing cooperation'. Known as The Australia Group, it came into being seven years before the Chemical Weapons Convention and today has a membership of 40 countries plus the European Commission.
Indications are that the UN inspectors will confirm chemical weapons were used in Syria and, without outright saying so (because it is beyond their mandate), will point at the Assad regime as the culprit. A 1988 resolution on the use of chemical weapons by Iraq compels the Council to take up the issue if there was future confirmation of the use of these weapons 'wherever and by whomever committed.'
The Russia-US deal reached over the weekend on Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile calls for UN inspectors to be deployed in November and all weapons destroyed by the middle of next year. The framework agreement also threatens a Security Council resolution under Chapter 7 of the UN charter if Syria fails to comply. But much of the detail still remains to be worked out, such as arranging a ceasefire so inspectors can do their work and, beyond the threat of a future Chapter 7 resolution, what provisions there are for enforcement.
It is these issues that the Council will haggle over in the next couple of weeks. Calls for referral to the International Criminal Court are also likely to increase with the release of the UN chemical weapons report on Monday. The elected Council members, as well as the P3, will push for a Chapter 7 resolution and referral to the ICC, but indications are Russia will want something much weaker, such as a non-binding presidential statement.
Ambassador Quinlan in his opening press conference said that the Security Council is judged by its failures, and given Australia’s strong stance against chemical weapons and its international initiatives on the matter, Australia may well use the presidential pulpit for the remainder of the month to push for a strong resolution. It will not want to be the country that presides over a Council that once again fails to perform its duty as the sole body charged with maintaining international peace and security.
Photo by Flickr user Julian Rotela Rosow.