When its two-year term on the UN Security Council comes to a close at the end of December, Australia will be remembered above all else for it efforts at securing greater humanitarian aid for Syria's beleaguered people. At a time when Canberra's asylum seeker policies have drawn criticism from the UN and given the impression internationally of hard-heartedness, its team in New York has carved out a reputation as energetic, if often thwarted, humanitarians. It is work that has not attracted a huge amount of media attention back home.
When Australia took up the gavel at the Security Council last September, it pressed hard for what's called a presidential statement on humanitarian aid to Syria, and was instrumental in securing one the following month.
The Australian thinking back then was that the presidential statement would form the basis for an eventual resolution, a far more significant text. That strategy came to fruition in February when the Security Council, in a rare moment of unanimity on Syria, passed a long-awaited and much-needed resolution (2139). All fifteen members demanded unhindered humanitarian access for UN agencies and its partners across conflict lines and across borders, and also promised 'further steps' in the event of non-compliance, an intentionally vague phrase.
Australia, along with co-sponsors Jordan and Luxembourg, is now pushing for a stronger resolution. The draft now being negotiated identifies four specific crossing points where aid can be delivered most effectively — two in Turkey, one in Jordan and one in Iraq — and states explicitly that humanitarian convoys can drive over the border without the permission of the Assad regime. It also invokes Chapter VII of the UN Charter, with its threat of sanctions and military force.
It therefore seeks to remedy the three main weaknesses of resolution 2139. First, the absence of any enforcement mechanism. Second, its failure to state unambiguously that aid convoys could rumble into Syria without authorisation from Damascus (UN lawyers judged that 2139 lacked that authority, a narrow interpretation challenged by many international legal experts). And third, the fact that 90% of UN aid is distributed in government-held areas, an iniquitous imbalance.
The problem now, as it has been for the past three years, is not just the Syrian Government's intransigence but Russian obstructionism.
It is hard to see Moscow accepting any resolution that invokes Chapter VII because it has continually shielded the Assad regime from punitive measures. An additional Russian fear is that such a resolution could hand the West a trigger for military intervention (not that the Western powers have any appetite to put boots on the ground or even warplanes in the skies to enforce a no-fly zone which could curb the use of barrel bombs). Russia also backs Syria's stance on sovereignty; the right to decide who and what crosses its borders. At present, all UN-delivered aid has to pass through the Syrian capital.
On this point, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has been unusually outspoken of late. 'It is an affirmation of the sovereign responsibility of the government to ensure that its citizens do not suffer in such a tragic and unnecessary way,' he wrote in his latest monthly report on compliance with Resolution 2139, a document which has made for ever more miserable reading.
Russia, by recently proposing the opening up of humanitarian corridors into eastern Ukraine and by invading Crimea, has also undercut its position on sovereignty – not that Moscow sees it that way.
On the face of it, the chances of the new resolution surviving a Russian veto seem remote. But Australia's ambassador, Gary Quinlan, one of the most active Security Council diplomats on the humanitarian issue, remains guardedly optimistic. UN watchers were equally doubtful in February before the passage of Resolution 2139, he points out, 'and they were wrong.'
According to the French, the fact that Russia and China vetoed a resolution last month calling on all parties guilty of war crimes in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague boosts the chances of success. It won't look good for Russia to veto two Syria resolutions in such quick succession. But again, Moscow seems to have little regard for diplomatic optics.
A senior Western diplomatic source, speaking on background, was less optimistic, putting the chances of passage at no more than 30%. Certainly, it is hard to see a Chapter VII resolution emerging from the Security Council, although inserting such a provision into the draft may be primarily for negotiating purposes. But that raises the question of whether a weakened resolution without the threat of punitive measures would be worthwhile. Like 2139, it would be hard to enforce and easy for the Assad regime to ignore. If its maximal draft resolution gets watered down too much, Australian diplomats might not even put it to a vote. The only reason to do so would be to shame veto-wielding Russia.
Resolution or no resolution, a rethink about the delivery of aid is already underway. It is focussed on NGOs rather than UN agencies like UNICEF, the World Food Programme and UNHCR. 'We are open to the idea of providing aid through any means that will get to the people who need it,' said US Secretary of State John Kerry when he spoke, with mounting frustration, at a conference on Syria in London last month. Britain too has started re-orientating its aid effort.
Even senior UN officials are privately encouraging donor countries to bypass the UN and channel their aid through NGOs, which have had more success reaching opposition-held areas and do not seek permission from Damascus before bringing food and medical supplies over the border. Last week, twelve leading NGOs sent a joint letter to The Guardian bemoaning the failure of Resolution 2139 and highlighting the deteriorating situation on the ground. 'The world has stood aghast as Syrians clamour for an end to their suffering,' the letter said. 'History will be generous to those that answer their call and unforgiving to those who turn away.'
Yet these kind of statements, along with the jolting images of suffering from Syria that accompany them, have had little impact on the tortuous geo-politics of the UN Security Council.
Photo by Flickr user Freedom House.