Samantha Power, the American ambassador to the United Nations, says the world has reached a “turning point” over Syria. The Russians, who refuse to halt their relentless bombing of Aleppo, say the Obama administration is “hysterical” and blaming Moscow for its own failures. The UN, lost for words, believes Syria has become a “slaughterhouse”. Stephen O’Brien, a senior official, warns despairingly that Aleppo is “descending into the pitiless and merciless abyss of a humanitarian catastrophe”. So what is to be done?
The short answer is that nobody seems to know – or, at least, how to do it. This crisis has been unfolding for five long years. Repeated attempts to set a viable peace process in train have failed. Ceasefires have come and gone, always temporary, always broken by one party or another within days or even hours. The latest truce collapsed last week amid a welter of mutual recriminations.
The US now says it is examining “non-diplomatic” options, possibly new sanctions against the Russian and Syrian governments and individuals deemed responsible for using bunker-buster and incendiary bombs in Aleppo. There are dark mutterings about US airstrikes on Syrian military targets. The latter course could bring US and Russian forces into direct confrontation. It would be the sort of serious escalation that Barack Obama has studiously avoided until now, even when his “red line” on chemical weapons was crossed in 2103.
Yet this crisis is now about far more than the people of Aleppo, or Syria or even US-Russian relations. The war has destabilised neighbouring countries such as Turkey. It has sparked an unprecedented movement of refugees and economic migrants across Europe’s borders. It has fuelled the rise of jihadi terrorism. It has distracted attention and resources from troublespots such as Yemen. Most significantly, perhaps, in terms of long-term damage, it has dramatically exposed the inherent weakness of the UN system and the growing disrespect shown by states for international law.
Russia is the worst offender. It has been warned repeatedly, most recently by Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, that its airstrikes in and around Aleppo and elsewhere against civilian targets, hospitals and schools, may constitute war crimes. The charge sheet includes the destruction of a UN-organised aid convoy in northern Aleppo last month that killed about 20 people. Russian and Syrian denials of responsibility are widely disbelieved.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was another egregious breach of international law, the sort of blatant land grab that most people believed belonged to the bad old days of 1930s Europe. Russia’s complicity, also implausibly denied, in the shooting down of a Malaysian civilian airliner over Ukraine two years ago, killing nearly 300 people, was an unforgivable outrage against international rules, not to mention common decency. Russia’s increasing use of cyber warfare, notably the recent hacking of the Democratic party and online electoral systems in the US, is another aspect of its serial disregard for international norms. Russia appears only too willing to manipulate the UN security council, despite its responsibilities as a permanent member. This risks a fundamental erosion of the UN Charter, which set as an objective the “establishment [of] conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained”. Yet such cynicism is not limited to Vladimir Putin’s regime.
Earlier this year, China, another permanent member of the security council, flatly rejected the ruling of the UN-backed permanent court of arbitration in The Hague that its island building and wider maritime claims in the South China Sea have no legal basis. Beijing said simply that the decision did not apply, for no better reason than it did not fit its strategic objectives. China has also made clear, following North Korea’s recent, illegal nuclear test, that it reserves the right to block attempts at the UN to impose further sanctions if it does not like them, thereby further undermining attempts to rein in the rogue regime in Pyongyang. Recent joint naval exercises in the South China Sea suggest Russia and China are grimly intent on backing up each other’s bad behaviour.
Disrespect for the UN and its institutions is a spreading problem, as seen by the apparent impunity enjoyed by those who attack or hinder its peacekeepers, aid workers and organisations. The too frequent inability of the UN to defend itself and those under its care was exemplified last July in Juba in South Sudan, when aid workers were brutally assaulted by army troops. In countries such as Sudan, the failing reach of international law is seen in President Omar al-Bashir’s continuing defiance of warrants for his arrest on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.
The International Criminal Court, which issued the warrants, is not a UN agency. But it is a key legal arm of the international system whose authority is regularly flouted by states that, even though they ratified the founding 2002 Treaty of Rome, do not respect its obligations. This tendency towards impunity is further encouraged by the US and other major countries that are not parties to the treaty even though they support ICC actions. This is the same double standard that allows Washington to complain about the flouting of international law in Syria and Ukraine while ignoring the damaging precedent set in 2003 when the Bush administration invaded Iraq without explicit UN legal authority.
The suffering in Aleppo is dreadful. As we have said many times, the combatants must pull back and cease fire, as a prelude to resumed diplomatic efforts. But we must also be clear that, increasingly, long-term structural damage is not confined to Syria. Lawless behaviour by powerful state actors is corroding the crucial institutions created in 1945 to prevent another global conflagration. By allowing international law to be repeatedly flouted, we risk an even greater catastrophe.
• Comments will be opened later today